The stimulus legislation has provided fodder for that time honored tradition of targeting specific line items for their apparent ridiculousness. While they can make for good sound bites and PR copy, frequently such items are actually of some use.
You’ve probably heard Governor Jindal, get roundly criticized on many points for his response to the President’s address earlier this week. One of those was his criticism of the stimulus funding “volcano monitoring.” Putting aside the fact that his cited figure for volcano monitoring was actually for all U.S. Geological Survey spending, there is the irony of the Governor of Louisiana arguing against a measure that would help mitigate a natural disaster. But it also feeds the fire Mr. Mooney occasionally stokes about a Republican War on Science. As his war downplays the notion that using science for political purposes is a universal trend – not a partisan one – such low-hanging fruit perpetuates an idea that causes more problems than it solves.
Unfortunately, Governor Jindal’s example is not an isolated incident in the last 12 months. Other recent examples:
During the recent general election campaign, Alaska Governor Palin dismissed fruit fly research as a waste of money. But the fruit fly is something of a workhorse in genetic research, which would help advance the state of science dear to one of her concerns, children with special needs.
During that same campaign, Senator John McCain railed against a study of bear DNA as an example of earmarks gone crazy, including it in a television ad. Now Senator McCain has a legitimate grievance about earmarks, as they can allow for items to be funded that might not otherwise pass review criteria. But that’s the more substantive argument – that earmarks are bad, not that researching bear DNA is stupid. In this particular case, the study contributes to the efforts in measuring the grizzly population. He joined in on the stimulus complaints by singling out beaver management and support of astronomy (Apparently you can’t link to individual Tweets. Scroll to the afternoon of February 27 to find the specifics, or go to this screen capture).
We also have the new chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, complaining about the removal of fish passage barriers.
This kind of earmarks manages to bungle things two ways. They obscure the real debate and challenge of earmarks by reducing them to sound bites. That same reduction undercuts the value of science and associated research. But the recent rash of Republican ridicule reduces tensions between science and politics to a single party issue. Steele, Palin, McCain and Jindal are following in the footsteps of others. Perhaps the politician best know for such grandstanding is the man behind the Golden Fleece Awards (1975-1988) – Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin. And he was a Democrat.