Monday, March 20, 2006

Flying Squirrel Sex Scandal

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (currently in opposition) has singled out a grant for research into factors affecting reproductive success in the northern flying squirrel as an example of government waste. When the federal party of the right (variously named Reform, Alliance, and now Conservative (no "Progressive")) wanted to showcase examples of government "waste," (i.e., when they were in opposition) they invariably included grants for projects involving research into a rodent species.

Their hope apparently is that it will be obvious to anyone that research about squirrels or lemmings or what have you is clearly not a contribution to the public good. "Leave it to the free market," one can almost hear them say. "If the people want to know about population cycles of arctic rodents, or, as is the issue today, northern flying squirrel reproductive success, let them buy tickets!"

These examples give rise to much hilarity. See for example the headline in yesterday's Toronto Star: "Squirrel sex-life research is nuts: Tory"

The article's lead:
It sounds nutty, but it's true: Premier Dalton McGuinty's personal ministry is spending $150,000 to study the sex lives of northern flying squirrels.
The article goes on to give a brief sketch of what sounds like important and interesting research.

But then:
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said with the provincial budget being introduced on Thursday, taxpayers should be aware of where their money is going.

"Only these guys are so addicted to spending that they would search high and low to find someone who's studying the sex life of a flying squirrel.

"People have to ask ...: Is the public interest being served by the expenditure of this money?

"Academic freedom is great and people can study whatever they wish, but we don't have to support all of that kind of work with research grants ...when we don't have enough money for nurses or to build highways or fund a lot of other things."
Nurses and highways are important, but if we succeed in destroying the conditions that support human life through continued degradation of the environment, or accelerated global warming, they obviously won't matter a damn. There is so much we don't know about how our world works. Research such as the project being made fun of here supplies the pieces we need to keep putting the puzzle together.

It is frightening that people in positions of power in Canada apparently fail to understand this. And the scariest thing of all is that the guys on the federal level who habitually called the funding of biological and ecological research "waste" are now in government.


John said...

It's just more demagoguery by people who only care about getting elected. Unfortunately we have them in the US too.

Clare said...

Always amazed at how narrow minded and self serving polititions are when it comes to research money. No doubt at some point he will be bemoaning the fact that Canada is losing ground to the rest of the world in science and technology and wondering why we have a brain drain to other countries.

Pamela Martin said...

The good news is that what attention this bit of foolery has received as far as I can tell takes the view that I've taken. The bad news is that Clare is right that research money has been squeezed almost to death over the last maybe 20 years, with the consequence that more and more of the direction of research is driven by private interests--usually as short-sighted as our governments so often seem to be.

pohanginapete said...

What never seems to be mentioned is how wasteful it is for the researchers to have to spend so much time and effort explaining the value of their work when they could be doing it.

Same story here in Aotearoa/NZ.