Monday, October 27, 2008

The Campaign Against Science, continued

On Friday, as part of her first policy speech, Governor Palin took another swipe at science, choosing fruit fly research as illustration of wasteful, nonsensical earmark spending. Previously, John McCain has derided planetarium "overhead projectors" as wastes of public money. It seems that the combination of fruit flies and France was irresistible to Sarah Palin: "...sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

Presumably Governor Palin was talking about research into the olive fruit fly requested by California to better understand and combat damage the flies are doing to its crops. I will go out on a limb and suggest Sarah Palin was reciting a line and doesn't know much about olive fruit fly research or its relevance. And I offer the regular caveat that any spending of public money should be subject to honest debate, certainly debate better than that provided by the earmark system.

If Governor Palin is happy to disparage fruit fly research that has overtly practical aims, what must she think of basic research into fruit flies? I'm guessing she doesn't think about it at all. Fruit fly research has been essential in understanding genetics and molecular biology. I have spent some time in the building at Columbia University where Thomas Hunt Morgan conducted his famous fruit fly experiments and demonstrated that genes are carried on chromosomes, for which he won the Nobel Prize. His research is the foundation for modern genetics, all from the humble fruit fly. Since Morgan, fruit flies have continued as an indispensable scientific model. The suddenly famous UNC School of Medicine study demonstrated the relevance of fruit fly study in understanding autism (ironically, one of Palin's declared important issues).

It's also worth noting again that we share genes with fruit flies because of our common evolutionary ancestors. Because fruit flies are easy to study, they are an important model for fundamental processes. Of course, you have to believe in evolution to understand this. In short, fruit fly research has proven enormously important and productive, and is likely to be so in the future.

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(photo credit: Thomas Hunt Morgan in his fly room, the-scientist.com)