After the bridge, and the road to the not-bridge, earmarks for research on bear DNA, seals, and crabs have been used as ammunition (an example among many here) in the election debate. In her inept way, I think Palin was sort of right about this issue (sort of right is the most precise judgment one can make of this poor woman’s public discourse), and I think it’s time to stop taking cheap shots with this kind of example. McCain snorted at studying bear DNA with public money. Oh yeah? Senator, do you have a list of organisms whose DNA is OK to study? Or do you think there’s nothing to learn from DNA at all?
Almost any piece of scientific research, especially in biology, that isn’t called “Cure cancer!” is liable to the kind of ignorant ridicule lobbed at these. Sure, some research is deeply silly and some is not worth doing. But that non-specialists can make fun of something from its title means nothing, and these japes indicate only the smug ignorance of the speaker. There is a problem with these earmarks, and a real one, but it’s not that they are silly research, it’s that scientific research should be selected for funding by political judgments about large program areas and peer/expert selection of individual grants. The grounds for dissing these is that Congress is no good at allocating science money at the individual project level, and shouldn’t do so even if the projects in question are really stellar: if they are, they should make it through NSF review.
Giving in to the temptation to make fun of an earmarked scientific project for its own sake, rather than for the damage earmark short-circuits do to science generally, isn’t worth the political hay it reaps, and it empowers the really dangerous forces that are anti-science and pro-ignorance. Let’s leave the bears and the seals out of the conversation.