Squirrel sex makes good science, dumb politics

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A recent publicity stunt by an Ontario politician to tar his opponent for spending money on “squirrel sex research” may have made good media gossip, but it shows a shockingly poor grasp of science.


Vol. 7 No. 29
April 05, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
Ontario’s conveniently named Progressive Conservative leader, John Tory, made front-page news with his demand of Premier Dalton McGuinty to stop wasting taxpayer’s money on flying-squirrel sex research. Calling it a
“boondoggle” and “inexcusable” in a news release, he demanded that the premier reign in his “reckless” spending.
Well, I don’t know much about the premier’s fiscal management, but a quick look at the scope of this research finds that it’s money well spent.
Contrary to Mr. Tory’s claim, the research is not about sex habits, but rather “reproductive fitness” – that is, the species’ ability to successfully reproduce. The study, conducted by Laurentian University professor Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, was actually funded through an award that was originally set up by Conservative premier Mike Harris for research excellence. The proposal went through several screening processes by independent experts and was also funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
So did Dr. Schulte-Hostedde pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? Were all these experts fooled by research that is surely very silly?
Hardly. Consider the lead paper published in the top-tier journal Nature last week: Proteome survey reveals modularity of the yeast cell machinery. Not as funny as squirrel sex, but equally obscure. Perhaps it would have
failed Mr. Tory’s silly screen as well. But since when did politicians get to decide what makes good science?
Fortunately, they don’t. Or, at least they shouldn’t. In the case of the flying squirrels, the research is actually critical to helping understand how species are being affected by climate change. There are very few such
long-term studies and flying squirrels are a perfect candidate. They are an “indicator” species that tell us something about the health of the overall ecosystem. If climate change is harming the squirrels’ ability to reproduce, then it’s likely that other species are having difficulties as well. And that could have implications throughout the food chain.
Not all science has an immediate practical application. In fact, most of it does not. One of the biggest problems facing the future of science is the reduction in public interest and funding for basic research. Few
researchers, and even fewer funders, are interested in basics like taxonomy that have little profit motive when the big money is in things like biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Yet everything we know is grounded in
basic research. If we don’t cover the basics, we hobble our ability to understand our world.
Science does not progress in an easy, linear fashion. It’s not like you have an idea, set up an experiment, prove your theory and then cure cancer. In science, you learn as much from your failures as you do from your
successes. Every paper, every theory and every experiment builds on those that came before. As Sir Isaac Newton and other scientists have said – we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.
Political interference in science is a big problem. In spite of global warming, the scientific climate in the United States right now is pretty chilly. Scientists there have accused the Bush administration of censorship, of fiddling with findings and hindering research. Is this the sort of thing we’d like to import into our country? Do we want people who have never peered into a microscope to decide what “good” science is? I think not. Research independence is critical to the advancement of science. If it were left to the flavour-of-the-month whims of politicians, we’d still be in the dark ages.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at http://www.davidsuzuki.org.
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