Enough already. I bit my tongue when I heard that Sarah Palin believed that dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side and that she and John McCain wanted creationism taught in the public schools. And I just shook my head when McCain derided proposed funding for a sophisticated planetarium projection machine as wasteful spending on an “overhead projector.” But the Republican ticket’s war on science has finally gone too far. Last week, Sarah Palin dissed research on fruit flies.
In her usual faux-folksy style, Palin lit out after a congressional earmark involving these insects: “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. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” (Reading this diatribe is not sufficient; only video reveals the scorn and condescension dripping from her words.)
As a geneticist, I’ve worked on fruit flies in the laboratory for three decades. I know the fruit fly. The fruit fly is a friend of mine. And believe me, Sarah Palin doesn’t know anything about fruit flies. The research Palin attacked was a perfectly valid project designed to protect American growers from the olive fruit fly, a destructive pest. But fruit-fly research is good for far more than that. The fruit fly is what we call a “model organism.” Since all animals partake of a common evolutionary history, we share basic features of physiology, development and biochemistry. And because flies are easy to study, quick to breed in the lab, and cheaper than chimps and mice, we can often use them as models for things that go wrong (or right) in our own species.