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Why Feds Can Not Duck Quack Research

Wednesday April 17th, 2013   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 1:56pm PDT   •  

duck-picture[1]The federal government funds many things, among them solar energy companies that quickly go bankrupt, such as Solyndra, and luxury cars built in Finland by Fisker, a company that just laid off most of its workers. The federal government also funds the study “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia.” Patricia Brennan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, got $384,949 from the federal National Science Foundation to study the sexual equipment of ducks. In a Fox news poll nearly 90 percent of respondents considered this wasteful government spending. Dr. Brennan, a “behavioral ecologist,” doesn’t think so.

She construes the duck project as basic scientific research bearing on evolution, and it has drawn serious coverage in the New York Times. Her recent grant came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package, but in a Slate article she said the project has been funded since 2005, when George W. Bush was president. Brennan says that ever since Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards “basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government ‘wastes’ taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research.” She didn’t name the agendas but argued that “basic research has to be funded by the government rather than private investors because there are no immediate profits to be derived from it.” Government research spending should “increase dramatically” if the United States is to remain a leader. “Who’s going to give me money to do basic science,” Brennan said, “if not the government?” She didn’t say if she had tried independent universities, corporations, wealthy philanthropists, or a group such as Ducks Unlimited.

The key dynamic here is government as the primary funder of scientific research, and the notion that government has a special obligation to fund projects that fail to interest anybody else. The duck genitalia study suggests that, even in tough economic times, the federal government remains willing to stimulate exactly that kind of project. And as California governor Jerry Brown said in his 2011 inaugural address, “Yes, government wastes money.”

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April 2013