Coming from Sarah Palin, it sounded like the ultimate folly: U.S. taxpayer money funding a study of fruit flies in Paris, France. But scientists jumped to the defense of the work that the Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate derided as wasteful on 24 October during a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The studies, actually carried out at a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) laboratory near Montpellier, 750 kilometers south of Paris, may help protect California olive trees from a serious pest, scientists say. In a speech about her running mate John McCain’s policies on children with disabilities, Palin condemned so-called earmarks, congressional mandates to spend money on specific projects. “You’ve heard about 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,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” In a video of the speech, somebody can be heard snickering in the audience.
To fight invasive insects, Hoelmer says it’s important to be able to study them over the long term in their native habitats–in the olive fruit fly’s case, the Mediterranean region and Africa. That would be impractical for U.S.-based researchers. EBCL’s predecessor opened in France a century ago to study the European corn borer, which had just crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The lab also serves as a base for expeditions to scout for insects’ natural enemies.
Hoelmer says that he believes he could convince anybody, including Palin, that his work is worthwhile. But as a government researcher, he can’t comment on political speeches. Zalom can. “This kind of stuff always drives me nuts,” he says. “It’s a total lack of understanding of the importance of research.”