It is one of the most remarkable aspects of science that we often don't know where the next practical breakthrough -- the one that might dramatically affect our everyday lives -- will come from, a fact that has taken on new significance during the current presidential campaign. Examples abound of unexpected connections in science that are as diverse as the discovery of antibiotics through Alexander Fleming's chance observation of mold in a petri dish, and the development of the World Wide Web as a result of esoteric experiments in particle physics at an accelerator in Geneva.
The story of Michael Faraday is particularly apt. His discoveries about the connections between electricity and magnetism laid the basis for generating most of the power that fuels modern society. When then-British Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone visited Faraday's laboratory and asked what was the use of all the lab paraphernalia, the wires and the magnets, the scientist was reputed to have answered: "Why sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!"
Faraday's story comes to mind as the McCain campaign continues to make hay over supposedly wasteful federal earmarks in the funding of science.
In the first presidential debate, and on the campaign stump, John McCain has cited a $3-million earmark allocated to study the DNA of bears in Montana. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he quipped, "but it was a waste of money."
Wrong on both counts. The actual amount was more: $4.8 million, and the research was mandated by the Federal Endangered Species Act, on the recommendation of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks service as essential to preserving a threatened species, the grizzly bear.
The DNA study allowed researchers to pinpoint bear numbers and locations and to document how their population is changing, all essential data if the bears are to be protected from extinction. That may not be the highest item on a presidential agenda, but to claim that it is a waste of money is outrageous. Protecting grizzly bears may be expensive, but many would argue that preserving such a U.S. treasure is priceless.
During the second and third debates, McCain railed against another supposed example of government waste: A request from Barack Obama for "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago."
The "overhead projector" in question is in fact a 40-year-old Zeiss optical projector that needs to be replaced at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The one-ton, 10-feet-long instrument is the central component of the Adler, the first planetarium ever built in the Western Hemisphere. It projects the night sky on the dome of the Sky Theater at the planetarium, which has hosted more than 35 million people since it opened, including more than 400,000 schoolchildren every year. In fact, the request -- made by Obama along with others in the Illinois congressional delegation, including three Republicans -- wasn't granted.
If it had been, it wouldn't have been a waste of government money. The National Academy of Sciences has targeted science education as a key goal in preserving the economic competitiveness of our nation. Similar "overhead projectors" in Los Angeles and New York have recently been replaced with the help of federal funds. McCain's gleeful attack sends this message: Encouraging science literacy is not worthy of government support.
Finally, last week, Sarah Palin gave her first policy speech, urging the federal government to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Along the way, she too attacked science earmarks by claiming that the shortfall needed to fully fund the act was less money than was allocated to projects that have "little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France."
Fruit flies can be made to seem like a silly thing to spend money on. But Palin was referring to research at a lab in France supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The subject is the olive fruit fly, which threatens the California olive industry. The U.S. is working with France because that nation has dealt with an olive fruit fly infestation for decades, far longer than California.
Maybe Palin also should have been told that a University of North Carolina fruit fly study last year demonstrated that a protein called neurexin is required for nerve-cell connections to form and function correctly. That discovery may lead to advances in understanding, among other things, autism, one of the childhood disorders that has been stressed by the McCain-Palin campaign.
It is easy to attack what you don't understand. But politicians would be wiser to attempt to better appreciate how science affects the issues central to our political priorities before rushing to use scientific research and education as a scapegoat in their campaigns.