Fruit Flies, Astronomy, DNA...There Goes The Economy.

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When Sarah Palin took a rhetorical whack at a research grant worth $211,000 last week, scientists angrily reacted to her characterization of research as "pork". Palin's tip came from Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), who in 1997 raised funds to rid the taxpayer of science research expense. The group enjoys a collaborative relationship with John McCain and was the source of McCain's comments on grizzly ecology research and planetarium equipment. So, we ask, why does olive fly research rate special attention from CAGW? Who is CAGW? Does any of this matter if McCain isn't elected?

Science Jokes for Dummies

As Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin put it: "Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!" The audience snickered. Palin's fruit fly joke continued a GOP candidate comedic run that McCain began with his "grizzly bear DNA" comment and his "overhead projector" joke. They could author a book.

It's theater, some say, arguing that McCain always trash talks science like this but doesn't vote against the measures. Case in point, some say -- incongruously, Adler Planetarium's equipment grant got rejected, but McCain keeps it as a talking point. Trash talk or not, the fact is, the GOP campaign team relegates science to political joke fodder used to misinform the masses. This doesn't endear them to Acronym Required as we previously commented. Will electing Obama put an end to this silliness?

Entomology Etymology

The "fruit fly", as every science blogger has dutifully pointed out -- (and, on a positive note, so did tons of non-science bloggers, writers, and reporters) -- refers to the Drosophila melanogaster, an important model organism that scientists have employed to further research in such things as human development, disease and genetics. Fine, if you want a line drawn to something even more relevant, this research is then used to develop medicines to treat diseases the GOP candidates get,as well as you and me. As you can imagine, scientists reacted ferociously (scientist ferocious) to Palin's fruit fly research talk.

However, confusingly, Palin was actually referring to the olive fruit fly. The olive fruit fly is indigenous to the Mediterranean and only became an invasive species in the States after arriving on California soil in the late 1990's. The fly poses an economic threat to California's olive crops. Olive trees are usually protected from olive fruit fly with insecticides, but from their olive fruit fly research, scientists now know of at least six natural predators to the olive fruit fly.

The research station in France gives US based researchers a chance to study the olive fruit fly in its native territory, where scientists have been dealing with the pest for years. Their research is beneficial because it will explore ways that these predators could be used as an alternative or extension of insecticides. Insecticides are a thriving part of the chemical industry though, so of course not all lobbyists will appreciate this new research.

So before focusing on the meta-message of Palin's attack, scientists took some time to explain that Drosophila melanogaster, wasn't really a "fruit fly". They were technically correct. This labeling confusion probably occurred sometime in the early 20th century or maybe even, depending on which source you light on, with Aristotle. So now "fruit fly" is a well-established part of scientists' and lay persons' vernacular. Even the staid Entomological Society of America calls them "fruit flies". The real point that this tangent confused was that Palin was referring to the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) -- a tephritid -- not THE "fruit fly".

Of course Palin supporters swarmed all over the fruit fly labeling mix-up and went on about how scientists didn't do their research, totally missing the fact that scientists really, actually do call the ubiquitous Drosophila melanogaster "fruit fly". Acronym Required doesn't want to diminish the importance of accuracy, but in this case the label is superfluous to the larger crime of denigrating science for fun. 1

Plus de hits, Plus de fun

Why does this story have legs? Does it contain just enough poll-tested key words -- "fruit fly", "French", "California" that Palin can elicit an audience reaction? Is there a larger purpose, that could perhaps be illuminated by trying to guess who's is behind it the attack? Clearly the French olive industry isn't behind the lobbying.

The olive fruit fly funding story originated with Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), an organization that started by J. Peter Grace, heir to founder of the W.R. Grace & Co, the chemical company. W.R. Grace & Co. is rather famous for polluting and environmental damage (as well as not paying taxes). Jonathan Harr chronicled one of W.R. Grace's pollution debacles in the memorable book "A Civil Action". Peter Grace got into politics when President Reagan appointed him to an internal government agency aimed at decreasing the role of government. This government agency eventually morphed into CAGW. CAGW has in the past attacked teenage alcohol education, science education programs and lots and lots of science research. The organization purports to target "meritless" science research by government agencies.

However, if you're trying to figure out why CAGW opposes $200,000K for olive fly research, and why such research has been deemed "meritless", you'd probably be on the wrong track. CAGW and their catchy anti-government hotline --1-800-BE-ANGRY -- works doing targeted lobbying when they receive corporate donations. CAGW funding comes from companies like Merrill Lynch & Company Foundation, Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil), Ingersoll-Rand Company, Johnson & Johnson F.M. Kirby Foundation, Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco (now part of the Altria Group) Sears Roebuck & Company, John Deere Foundation, Eaton Charitable Fund, and Columbia/HCA Foundation.

Shooting Down Science, Contract by Contract

Among the thousands of campaigns CAGW runs, only occasionally does the media uncover or even pay attention to the source of funding. CAGW was behind a Northrup Grumman case and Microsoft's funded lobbying and astroturfing in the anti-open source.

Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times's did some great investigative stories on CAGW in April, 2006. In "For Price, Watchdog Will be an Advocate", Adler described how $100,000 from the Mexican avocado growers motivated a CAGW "public relations" effort against the California Avocado Commission's resistance against the import of Mexican avocados. It's almost as insignificant as olive fruit flies you see.

In another case, Public Citizen revealed that CAGW worked with PhRMA, a lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry, to scuttle efforts for a government health care plan.

CAGW and Tobacco

For years, CAGW worked with the tobacco industry. In 1997, the group lobbied the Tobacco Institute for $25,000 for the production of a publication called "Weird Science." The goal of CAGW, according to internal Tobacco Institute documents was to:

"...'expose federally "taxpayer-funded research projects that have little or no scientific merit.' The group will target agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to researching agency spending, the publication will look at the issue of risk-assessment."

The Tobacco Institute memo recommended giving CAGW $5,000, instead of $25,000, because in the "wide array" of subjects CAGW proposed, "our story could get lost in the mix." You can find anti-regulatory rhetoric about tobacco and alcohol on CAGW's website.

Thousands of CAGW campaigns and their donors remain unknown. A St. Petersburg Times article in December, 2006 described how the group's tax exempt status hides their defacto corporate lobbying role. The IRS code allows them to keep private records. Therefore who funds them (which is tax deductible), and other important details are not available to the public.

But you can get the gist of the CAGW game reading Adair's account. In "When Tobacco Needed a Voice, CAGW Spoke up and Profited", the St. Petersburg Times described how the tobacco industry donated at least $245,000 to CAGW to target movement put the FDA in charge of regulating tobacco.

McCain, Swindle, CAGW....

Earlier this year, Democrats, labor unions and concerned Americans criticized McCain for snubbing Boeing (headquartered in Chicago) by awarding a $40 billion contract to Northrup Grumman and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company EADS. McCain struck back at his Democratic critics through CAGW.

CAGW has worked very closely with John McCain since at least 1990, when they collaborated to initiate a presidential line item veto. From all accounts its been a fruitful collaboration. Orson Swindle, a fellow Vietnam veteran, works for both CAGW and the McCain campaign.

Defining Cynicism.

In their annual 1995 "Pig Book Summary", the CAGW nominated Senator Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as one of the 14 worst offenders their so-called "Oinkers", for securing a $400,000 grant through the EPA to study algal blooms in Hawaii. The blooms are important to understanding the ocean ecosystem and even climate change.

Senator Byrd, also called out that year by CAGW, commented on the report: "It is old propaganda. It is a yawn and a boar." (an intentional misspelling) It may be a bore, but it's a persistent one. CAGW has only increased it's influence in the last 13 years, working hand in hand with John McCain as well as some illustrious lobbyists.

A senate report by Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), condemned Citizens Against Government Waste. Grassley singled the organizations out as a member of 5 tax exempt groups who

"violated their tax exempt status 'by laundering payments and then disbursing funds at Mr. Abramoff's direction; taking payments in exchange for writing newspaper columns or press releases that put Mr. Abramoff's clients in a favorable light.."

The Washington Post wrote about the incident: "The e-mails show a pattern of CAGW producing public relations materials favorable to Mr. Abramoff's clients."

CAGW not only denied the charges but did a little PR on its own behalf. Then when Senator Steven's (R-AK) was found guilty of accepting $250,000 in bribes last week, CAGW sent out a press release that read: "The Stevens trial will go down in history alongside the trials of lobbyists Jack Abramoff...as just another sad, but not surprising spectacle of corruption and cynicism in the nation's capital."

Does It Matter?

John McCain mentioned "Citizens Against Government Waste" in each of the three presidential debates. In return, the group's political action committee called McCain a "taxpayer hero" in TV ads airing in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. CCAGW, a PAC associated with CAGW, ran the television ads for the presidential candidate.

But if John McCain isn't elected does it matter? Clearly I'm not going to say no. In our last post we quoted Studs Terkel, who once said, "given the facts and an opportunity to act, the body politic generally does the right thing." But as Winston Churchill once said: "Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives." If Congress doesn't ensure that the people can get the facts, then we have no chance of ever doing "the right thing".

Acronym Required agrees that not all science research is beneficial -- for the economy, for science, or for education. Furthermore, who could malign CAGW's ostensible mission? As people have said before us, who does support government waste? And while earmarks may be an expeditious route to funding, should we all have to pay for that? But two points. One, the agency and the politicians who plug it, most publicly, presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, clearly don't seem to get that if science research stops, industry and medicine stop. Two, if CAGW's projects are primarily motivated by donors, and they definitely seem to be, who's to say which of the group's targets is fair game and which are solely contracted political targets?

Lets explore how $200,000 fruit fly research could be so outrageous as to waste a candidates time. Consider that Goldman Sachs set aside $6.85 billion for this year's employee bonuses. According to CAGW, the downside of the bank bailout was that it would, "draw socialist vampires to Washington for decades to come." The lashing of olive fruit fly research was far more ferocious considering that the cost of the research was about .003% of the multi-billion dollar bank bailout.

CAGW has been around since the 1980's and their work will continue unless we change the laws and demand greater transparency. There's been only occasional chatter about discontinuing the veiled lobbying, despite the wisdom of Senator Byrd and others that "it is old propaganda." At the root of the McCain campaign's choice to play enfant terrible to scientists and science, there's a very popular ideology at work that will not die with an incoming Obama administration.

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1 Unfortunately scientists don't have comedy prank team at a radio station like CKOI ("Plus de hits, Plus de fun") at our disposal. 2. Palin's naivete about the latter bit her later when she didn't recognize the Canadian comedy team's faux President Sarkozy, with his faux Fraauunch accent -- even when he asked Palin to take him up hunting by helicopter: "I just love killing those animals. Hmm-hmm. Take away a life, that is so fun." "Kill two birds with one stone", she responded gamely. Palin exclaimed to "Sarkovy" "we love [the French]!".

1 Comment

interesting post. I noticed today that the FCC has just auctioned the whitespace in the spectrum for public access for wireless. This was opposed by many large media lobbies... And - coincidentally? CAGW named the FCC head Kevin Martin October "porker of the month". Thanks.

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