Why Taxpayers Should Pay to Study Duck Penises and Screwworm Flies

What looks like frivolous research can have big payoffs for our health and the environment.

(Photo: Michal Cizek/Getty Images)

Jul 1, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

In 2009, a presidential wannabe named Bobby Jindal stood before the cameras to denounce the federal government for frivolous spending, and he got off what passes among politicians for a clever sound bite, targeting a $140 million science program to monitor volcanoes: “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

Jindal was apparently too young to remember the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980, which flattened a blast zone 19 miles out from the volcano, killed 57 people, and caused $2.7 billion in damage. (Oh, it happened in some place called Washington. Never mind.) Though he is governor of Louisiana, Jindal also seemed to be unaware that studying potential natural disasters is a good way to save lives and minimize destruction.

This is how it always seems to go with lamebrain politicians and the scientists struggling to understand the natural world. But nobody gets it worse than scientists who study animal behavior, probably because the subject matter is both so familiar and so easy to make sound completely absurd. Or as University of Massachusetts biologist Patricia Brennan puts it, “Most people know about ducks; most people know about penises. You put the two together, and it sounds silly. That’s just how it goes.”

Brennan speaks from painful experience. Last year, when Republicans in Congress shut down federal spending, her National Science Foundation–funded research on sexual conflict came under withering attack: “Feds Fund Vital Study on Snail Sex and Duck Penises,” one typical headline announced. Meanwhile, “White House Tours Still Canceled Over Lack of Funds.”

But Brennan fought back, defending her research in a widely read article on Slate. “Basic research has to be funded by the government rather than private investors,” she wrote, “because there are no immediate profits to be derived from it.” Yet the entire National Science Foundation budget costs the American public only about $20 a person, versus upward of $2,000 a person for the military budget. Her own work on genital morphology in ducks was a way to understand “one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and exhibit violent sexual coercion.” (Though she didn’t say so, it’s the sort of study the military, which has its own problems with sexual coercion and which understands the value of basic research, might well have funded.)

Now Brennan and two coauthors are laying out an agenda for other behavioral scientists to explain and defend their own work. Writing in the journal Animal Behaviour, they argue that simply lying low and letting the storm pass over is a mistake: Silence can look like “implicit acceptance that there is something wrong with your project,” and that risks further eroding public confidence in science at large.

Among the “talking points” they suggest: The federal government funds only about a quarter of all U.S. science, but this “guarantees that at least some of our discoveries are free of special interests.” Because no one knows what basic science will turn out to be useful, the funding agency must cast a wide net, and it needs to expect that there’s rarely going to be a straight line from basic science to everyday applications. The “potential economic gains” are “unpredictable and generally long term.”

The coauthors tell a brief story about one such case of unpredictable economic gains. In 1975, U.S. Sen. William Proxmire singled out the taxpayer-funded work of a researcher named E.F. Knipling for ridicule, awarding him one of his early Golden Fleece Awards. Knipling’s study of “the sex life of parasitic screwworm flies” sounded even dumber than studying duck penises. But that research, paid for by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now produces an annual benefit of $1 billion a year for U.S. cattle ranchers. (The technique Knipling developed for releasing sterilized male insects has also dramatically reduced populations of a host of other agricultural pests.)

Likewise, Proxmire and politicians would surely have run to the nearest camera if they knew in the 1960s that the NSF was paying for a scientist named Tom Brock to study the microbiological life in thermal ponds in Yellowstone National Park. That work resulted in the discovery of Thermus aquaticus living in the scalding hot mud of Mushroom Spring. Other scientists figured out how to use a product of this species, Taq polymerase, which today is an essential ingredient in any DNA test for any purpose anywhere in the world. The economic gains are beyond price.

But maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to call all politicians lamebrain. In 2012, a few renegade members of Congress banded together to create the Golden Goose Award. At a time when federal spending for scientific research is under furious attack, the award means to remind Congress itself that this research has a history of producing “life-saving medicines and treatments; game-changing social and behavioral insights; and major technological advances related to national security, energy, the environment, communications, and public health,” leading to “economic growth through the creation of new industries or companies.”

Among the first recipients was Tom Brock and his Taq polymerase. A few years from now—who knows?—the winner could be Patricia Brennan and those duck penises.