There will no doubt be a lot of reading between the lines here, and conclusions related to many of the other issues connected with the Presidential campaign. This is too bad, because I think my main point, along with this story, may well get buried due to the vicissitudes of the news cycle.
Governor Palin gave her first policy speech as a Vice-Presidential candidate on Friday. The emphasis of the speech was on support for children with special needs. As Governor Palin’s youngest child has Down Syndrome and a nephew has autism, this is a particularly appropriate topic for her to give an address. You can read it and see the video online.
Where Governor Palin gets to a perpetual challenge for science and technology supporters is later in the address where she challenges earmarks for various projects – citing a public policy center and fruit fly research in France. As Senator McCain has complained about a bear study, this is not the first time this campaign has listed scientific research as part of their campaign against earmarks.
Putting aside the particularly tone-deaf problem of complaining about research using one of the species in the scientific workhorse Drosophilia - the same insect that has produced useful research results for autism, there is the recurring effort to continue the grandstanding efforts of former Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) and his Golden Fleece Awards – which often targeted scientific research projects that seemed very disconnected from relevant applications. That it made good copy probably mattered as well.
As I write this the story hasn’t broken on the science blogs, but I expect the prevailing narratives on this story to focus on this as an example of how anti-science a McCain Administration might be, or the continuing story of Governor Palin’s disdain for elites of any stripe (the news opinion channels are advancing those arguments in addition to the tone-deafness of the remarks). But those stories – fair or not – have already been written. The more valuable point to take from this is that the challenge of communicating the value of research will not go away. I don’t think it should, but that’s a different matter. Scientists, technologists, policy analysts and advocates for science and technology need to supplement their arguments for their interests with coherent arguments about how their work matters to people outside of our narrowly defined interest group.