Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sure it saved us twenty billion, but it sounds funny

I was very pleased to read this report (via Mr. Salmon,) in the Washington Post:
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) believes it is time the sex life of the screwworm got its due.

 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.
This is a good story in the sense that it's good news -- for too many years, important research with huge economic pay-offs has been ignored and often mocked -- but it's also a good story for a guy trying to write  a post for a science and technology blog because it illustrates so nicely some of the reasons that so much science reporting is so bad:

1. Most reporters have a weak grasp of what goes into good research. For example, studying conditions in different animals often produces giggles from the press (see the dog urine study) even though changing the population of animals studied is generally an excellent idea.

2. The press corps have an urban bias accompanied with a pronounced disinterest in agriculture. As a result, even agricultural research of immense and obvious economic value is routinely mocked by publications like the New York Times.

3. The press corps also has decided ddulite tendencies and unfortunately this research doesn't sound cool. (Even though it is.)

update: Upon review, I'm thinking that I didn't out my point sufficiently. The studies described on the WP were good, solid research that paid for itself. The media's inability to recognise good science makes it all the more difficult to fund and pursue good science.

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