Why science shouldn’t be a political punchline
By Former Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Mary Sue Coleman
Q: What do bee meanderings, screw worms, and teenagers’ personal behavior have in common? (OK, it’s a trick question.)
A: Groundbreaking taxpayer-funded research. (Yes, we said groundbreaking.)
Science and governance have a complicated relationship. Government funds most basic science, because others don’t have the resources or incentives. Enlightened policymaking requires science. Science helps determine the risks of a particular action or inaction, brings necessary facts to bear, applies rigorous thinking to cause and effect, and invites assessments of what’s working, and what’s not. For these reasons, science has long had bipartisan support.
But for some, science is too often a political punchline.
Our country benefits immensely from federal investment in research. Sometimes, however, this research sets out to answer questions that can seem whacky to politicians and the media. One example: a few years ago, some ridiculed federal investment in research that sought to assess how shrimp – an economically important seafood – reacted to changes in water quality and used little treadmills to measure their activity. The cost of this experiment was minimal (the treadmill cost all of $47), yet it was ridiculed as an example of government waste.
We all want taxpayer-funded science to help shed light on how best to keep our environment clean, our economy strong, and our population healthy and safe, but the nature of research is that we might not know its ultimate benefit from the outset. What we do know is that past federally funded scientific experiments – including some that were ridiculed at the time – have led to extraordinary societal benefits.
Tonight, our organizations will celebrate three federally funded scientific research projects that overcame skepticism and scornand ended up changing the world. These studies will receive the “Golden Goose Award,” the brainchild of Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee that was launched five years ago to recognize scientific studies that may have seemed obscure, esoteric or downright funny, but have proven to have enormous and often unanticipated impacts on society.
Prior to the 1960s, ranchers in the southern U.S. were locked in a constant struggle with the deadly screwworm fly, which could destroy entire cattle herds. Then, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers developed the “sterile insect technique,” in which lab-raised, sterilized male insects are let loose to mate with females, which eventually eradicates the native pest population. This research was ridiculed because it involved the sex lives of flies – screwworm flies, no less – yet, thanks to this research, this parasitic scourge has been eradicated, saving billions for the livestock industry and ultimately consumers. And if that wasn’t enough, this technique is being examined today as a critical weapon in the fight against the Zika virus.
Federally funded research breakthroughs learned from nature have also been applied to technology. The National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research funded research that explored how honey bees efficiently collect nectar in ever-changing environments. The research led to an algorithm that, a decade later, was used to improve how shared web servers move internet traffic. Today, the internet – and all of the commerce and ideas that depend on it – moves faster and more smoothly because of this research, benefiting consumers and web hosting companies alike.
Lastly, we will recognize researchers who developed the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) – a study which originated 25 years ago to understand the public health concerns prevalent in adolescents. An earlier, peer-reviewed study focused on the sexual behavior of teens was actually stopped by political concerns around investing in this type of research. Add Health – which is built upon the federally funded design of that canceled study, but looks at a wide variety of behaviors affecting teens’ health – not only sexual behavior – has proven over two decades to be extraordinarily valuable, laying essential groundwork for research into the nation’s obesity epidemic and providing key insights into how social and family relationships can help protect adolescents against health risks like diabetes, hypertension, and inflammation into adulthood.
Scientific research is a font of innovation, economic growth, health, and prosperity. It is our hope that as Members of Congress review obscure or odd-sounding projects today, they will be inspired by breakthroughs like these and invest more, not less, in scientific research. And our leaders should praise scientific endeavors, even when the outcomes are uncertain. The Golden Goose Awards provide a sometimes amusing yet serious recognition of the value of that investment.
Holt is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Coleman is president of the Association of American Universities.
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill