Why ‘the sex life of the screwworm’ deserves taxpayer dollars

at 11:05 AM ET, 04/26/2012

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) believes it is time the sex life of the screwworm got its due.
Stuart is a 1 ½ year old male Guinea Pig. (SOURCE: LO CO ANIMAL SHELTER)

On Wednesday afternoon, Cooper rose to the defense of taxpayer-funded research into dog urine, guinea pig eardrums and, yes, the reproductive habits of the parasitic flies known as screwworms--all federally supported studies that have inspired major scientific breakthroughs.

Together with two House Republicans and a coalition of major science associations, Cooper has created the first annual Golden Goose Awards to honor federally funded research “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.”

Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle--costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.

Cooper says that his original inspiration for the Golden Goose Award was the long-running “Golden Fleece Awards” that the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) bestowed upon the most wasteful government spending, beginning in 1975. More recently, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has taken up that mantle. In a report last year on the National Science Foundation, Coburn blasted frivolous-sounding research that received federal funding, including one study that put shrimp on miniature treadmills and another that asked smokers to mail in their toenail clippings.

Cooper himself can’t be accused of being a free-spending liberal:As a member of the Blue Dog Caucus that sponsored the Simpson-Bowles plan on the House floor, his own deficit reduction proposals have garnered praise from prominent fiscal conservatives. The two House Republicans who helped him unveil the Golden Goose Awards--named after Aesop’s fable of “the goose that laid the golden egg”-- also voted for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) most recent budget. But the congressmen stress that federal money spent on basic scientific research is well worth the upfront investment.

“When we invest in science, we also invest in jobs. Research and development is a key part to any healthy economy,” said Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) at Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s critical, and the federal government has an important role to play,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn.), who described how injecting horses with snake venom might “seem peculiar” but led to the discovery of the first anti-venom.

The group also wants their colleagues--and the broader public--to understand that investing in science means that the research failures are part of the process, as well. “There has never been a scientific project with guaranteed success...a single breakthrough can counter a thousand failures,” says Cooper.

The congressmen point out that funding basic science research has a long history of bipartisan support. House Speaker, Newt Gingrich helped double the budget of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s, for instance. But the recent draconian rounds of budget cuts have repeatedly threatened funding for basic research at the NIH, National Science Foundation, and other major federal bodies.

So far, Congress has mostly spared basic science research funding, even increasing it slightly at the NIH and NSF for 2012. But Cooper warns that cuts could still be looming: at a recent Defense committee hearing, lawmakers were considering a $50 million cut to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for 2013, according to the Tennessee Democrat--part of the defense budget sequester that will start kicking in at the end of 2012.

“We are absolutely concerned--they need to be smart and strategic about cuts,” said Gene Irisari, a lobbyist for Texas Instruments who’s been working the Hill to fend off spending reductions for research.

So while it may be premature to tout the benefits of studying “sweaty tree frogs” on the Hill — a research subject that Cooper says would have “gotten me laughed out of Congress” — you never know how it will look in 20 years. “We create what every previous generation would have described as magic,” he concludes.

 
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