Thursday, April 26, 2012

sexy science

I've worked on or followed research and development issues throughout my professional career. I remember sitting in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when the then-director of DARPA said he wanted permission from Congress to fail in some of its programs, because otherwise DARPA would fall short of truly innovative programs. I believe DARPA has lived up to our expectations for it, multifold.

I believe the government has an important role to play in funding research in basic science -- "what makes grass green," as one Pentagon official described it. Private industry is pretty good at commercializing products inthe development phase, but not so well in research.

Despite the validity of those general principles, many politicians like to make fun -- or be downright derisive -- about some of the basic research grants the government has given. Yesterday, Cong. Jim Cooper [D-Tenn] spoke to the House of some of the benefits from weird-sounding research, including a study of "the sex life of the screwworm."

As Suzy Khimm of the Post's Wonkblog tells it,
Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle--costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.
Hurrah for Cooper and his pro-science colleagues!

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