Palin’s Anti-Science Rhetoric

In her first policy speech in Pittsburgh last Friday, Sarah Palin spoke about the need for government programs to aid children with disabilities and disorders, highlighting the importance of scientific research into disorders such as autism:

“For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference.”

Palin agrees with scientists that understanding human diseases is important, but she doesn’t like the strategy scientists have been taking toward this goal:

“Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? … some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

As if it is not outrageous enough that our dollars are going to waste on scientists’ play with fruit flies! No, to top it off, it’s going to the particularly unruly French fruit flies, that probably sip a shot of espresso prior to metamorphosis, in their Rive Gauche, crêpe-padded vials.

It is of no use to mention, when arguing with Republicans, that much of what we know about how genetics and molecular biology work comes from work in ‘lowly animals’ like fruit flies and worms. Genetic linkage, recombination, and regulation, sex-linked inheritance, the cell cycle, or programmed cell death, … the endless list that forms the most beautiful discoveries of how we work and where we come from.

This would be intellectual and elitist — an appeal to knowledge that we have, and they don’t. It would require the curiosity and education that members of the other party conspicuously lack.

A more effective strategy is to shower opponents with a list of biomedical applications of this basic research. A list that’s catchy and direct, and easily explained in a thirty second sound bite on an evening news program.

The applicability of these studies begin with what is undoubtedly the most relevant disease to Sarah Palin personally. When Palin’s doctors broke the news that her future child will have Down syndrome (or ‘Trisomy 21’), they probably explained that this disorder results from having an extra copy of chromosome 21. They might have also mentioned that the extra copy is a product of failure in the process of chromosome segregation, a fundamental aspect of the cell cycle across most organisms.

What Palin doesn’t know is that defects in chromosome segregation and replication are powerfully studied in fruit flies as a model organism — right here at the Whitehead Institute, among other places — and that the ability to watch the segregation process take place in the fly gives the most insight into how and when it goes awry.

It is only against the background of a hundred years of previous genetics research in the fly that this intricate process becomes even remotely tractable for study. And of course, we now know that the key molecular players in this process work the same way in essentially all organisms (a highly suspicious coincidence if one doubts the forces of evolution.)

Palin also doesn’t know that recent work in fruit flies on Fragile X syndrome, the leading genetic cause of mental retardation, starts to unravel the disease gene’s function in nerve cells — and that insights from this work point the way toward potential therapeutic targets. Or that the mapping of several cancer tumor pathways comes from work in flies and worms, culminating in the discovery of wildly successful drug therapies, like the FDA-approved leukemia drug Gleevec.

This list goes on and on. In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if one vial of fruit flies in these research labs has done more for the “public good” Palin spoke of than she has her entire career. (Think of this next time you encounter those little creatures on your apples.)

Sarah Palin ought to be thankful to the real mavericks of genetics, who dared to think that they could understand fundamental pieces of which we are made, even in the humble fruit fly or worm (French or not.) It’s the work of these scientists that gives a glimmer of hope for treating these horrible human disorders.

MIT has been a mecca for biological research, and a tremendous player in these discoveries. Let’s understand the many dazzling discoveries of these scientists — who are all around us — and communicate the bottom-lines of their work to the public. Most importantly, let’s make sure this work continues to be funded by keeping Palin as far away from a position of power as possible.

In summary, when talking to Republicans about science, don’t try to educate. Don’t tell the full story. In the context of this debate, don’t talk about sequence homology, conservation of genetic pathways across organisms or the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

They don’t know, don’t care, and don’t understand. Just go to the bottom line, the medical application, the bang the tax payer’s buck. We want to win this time, and this is what it takes to win.

Yarden Katz is a second year Brain and Cognitive Sciences graduate student.