Thomas R. O'Donnell

Snail episode illustrates science news’ slow crawl

In Uncategorized, University research on April 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm
snail dime

The tiny shells of the New Zealand mud snail. U.S. Geological Survey photo.

Since I posted it about a week ago, more than 2,000 visitors have read my report on the conservative criticism directed at University of Iowa professors Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon. Along with Jeffrey Boore at the University of California, Berkeley, they study the genetic makeup of two genetic lines of a New Zealand snail, one of which reproduces sexually and the other asexually.

Their goal is to elucidate the genetic foundation for sexual reproduction. But conservative websites, bloggers and pundits from Michelle Malkin to Fox News blasted the four-year, National Science Foundation grant as a waste of tax money for studying “snail sex.” The big number of hits (thanks in large part to Logsdon and Neiman spreading the word) indicates how interested people are in the intersection of science, government and politics.

What’s surprising is how big this was on conservative media, but how other press – even Iowa news operations – missed the story.

I first contacted Neiman and Logsdon about two weeks after first posted the item about their research that attracted so much attention. The reporter from that website and someone from Fox News had contacted Neiman to confirm the amount of the grant, but asked no further questions. Other than that, I was the first person to take an interest and ask deeper questions about the science behind the grant.

Iowa media missed a pretty interesting story with a strong local angle. It may be understandable that local reporters didn’t jump on the U of I’s press release more than a year ago; it’s not that much money and it’s interesting, but not earth-shattering research. The CNSNews item got attention mostly because its distorted view of the research played into conservative views that government-supported science is silly and wasteful.

The conservative media’s take on this, perhaps more than the research itself, is what makes this a good story. It raises questions of national interest about media, government support for science and the importance of basic research.

One possible reason Iowa media missed the story is that the story and commentary appeared almost solely in the hard-line conservative press. Few regularly step into the crazy, often distorted world of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News or the Drudge Report.

In fact, I learned about the snail controversy from an automatic news alert that sends me links to Iowa-related science stories. It caught an item from the Niagara Falls Reporter, reprinting the CNSNews report with a snarky headline and caption.

There’s a more alarming possibility for why the research was blown out of proportion and why Iowa media missed the resulting controversy: the generally weak state of science reporting and a misunderstanding of how government supports science.

“It’s a pretty well-known issue in science,” Logsdon told me. “Science reporters are few and far between” in popular media.

I agree. Even at major newspapers and networks, there have been cuts in science coverage and reporters.

At the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, my old friend Perry Beeman covers the environment, but rarely touches research and often is squeezed into other duties.

Tony Leys, also a friend, supposedly covers medicine and science but usually writes about insurance, health policy and the Iowa Board of Medical Examiners. He’s made a specialty of getting into other countries and of covering immigration.

There’s Marco Santana, a business reporter covering technology. His focus seems to be on Web commerce startups, not the research that often leads to companies and products.

I’m not blaming the reporters. The Register’s news staff has shrunk and they’re stretched just covering the news of the day. Tackling science and research isn’t a priority.

The lack of Iowa science reporting, in fact, is a big reason I started this site. There are hundreds of science bloggers like me trying to fill the gap. But these blogs generally attract only readers who already are interested. There’s little opportunity for the serendipitous exposure that can educate those with less knowledge of science and how it works.

As for the conservative attacks on research like snail genomes and duck genitalia, here’s my take: People have the right to ask questions, but going off half-cocked is irresponsible and may be purposely intended to distort. Responsible reporters get the information and background that might counter the outrage some people feel. They’d see that there’s a logical, scientifically grounded reason for this. (Fair and balanced, right, Fox?)

As Logsdon also noted, that doesn’t mean coverage must be uncritical. It’s become standard practice, when reporting on a research project or finding, to contact an expert with no stake in either. The best reporters seek objective opinions on whether the project is scientifically worthwhile or the results are significant to the field.

Another point: Some people might think if we just got rid of this seemingly wacky and insignificant research, our budget problems would disappear. But if my math is right, the National Science Foundation’s entire 2014 budget request of $7.626 billion is about .0000019 .19 percent of the White House’s entire $3.77 trillion request. Eliminating the NSF – and all other basic research – wouldn’t make a dimple in the deficit. Meanwhile, Congress continues to fund bloated defense projects with dubious benefits.

You also have to remember that industry is unlikely to support this research because there’s no clear or short-term commercial benefit. Foundations provide grants, but they can’t do the entire job and rarely provide the kind of continuing support government can. Yet, such basic research is the foundation for dozens of valuable discoveries.

All basic research makes us smarter, but not all of it yields immediate benefits. Entrepreneurs can’t guarantee their business will succeed, but they try anyway. We can’t be sure what basic science will yield unless we try. The results often are a surprise. As in business, the more chances we take, the more likely we are to hit a home run.

And when it comes to getting at the truth of whether a fertilizer, a treatment or a teaching method is effective, who would you rather pay the bill: A corporation with a profit motive or an agency where scientists make the decisions based on evidence? That’s another reason government should foot the bill for basic research.

One last thought for Iowans who may sneer at this and other research: We love our universities when their football and basketball teams ride high. We gladly send our sons and daughters to their classrooms. They come back with pretty good educations as doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, business people, engineers and more.

Without the research grants that faculty like Neiman and Logsdon receive, however, our universities would be shadows of their current states. The facilities would be smaller, the faculty less talented, the courses less fulfilling. The universities get overhead – a cut of those federal, foundation and, yes, corporate dollars. That money helps pay for the research laboratories and graduate students that help make Iowa State, Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa such great places.

  1. 7,626,000,000/ 3,770,000,000,000 = .002, = .2%

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