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Why studying duck genitalia is not a waste of tax dollars

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AMHERST, Mass. -- In the past few days, the Internet has been filled with commentary on whether the National Science Foundation should have paid for my study on duck genitalia, and 88.7 per cent of respondents to a Fox news online poll agreed studying duck genitalia is wasteful government spending. The commentary supporting and decrying the study continues to grow. As the lead investigator in this research, I would like to weigh in on the controversy and offer some insights into NSF's process of research funding.

Basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government "wastes" taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research. These arguments misrepresent the distinction between and the roles of basic and applied science. Basic science is not aimed at solving an immediate practical problem. Basic science is an integral part of scientific progress, but individual projects may sound meaningless when taken out of context. Basic science often ends up solving problems anyway, but it is just not designed for this purpose. Applied science builds upon basic science, so they are inextricably linked. As an example, Geckskin is a new adhesive product with myriad applications developed by my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts. Their work is based on several decades of basic research on gecko locomotion.

Whether the government should fund basic research in times of economic crisis is a valid question that deserves well-informed discourse comparing all governmental expenses. As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy. The government cannot afford not to make that investment. In fact, I argue research spending should increase dramatically for the United States to continue to lead the world in scientific discovery. Investment in the NSF is just over $20 per year per person, while it takes upward of $2,000 per year per person to fund the military. Basic research has to be funded by the government rather than private investors because there are no immediate profits to be derived from it.

Because the NSF budget is so small, and because we have so many well-qualified scientists in need of funds, competition to obtain grants is fierce.Congress decides the total amount of money the NSF gets from the budget, but it does not decide which individual projects are funded -- and neither does the president or his administration. Funding decisions are made by panels of scientists who are experts in the field and based on peer review by outsiders, often the competitors of the scientists who submitted the proposal. The review panel ranks proposals on their intellectual merits and effects to society before making a recommendation. This recommendation is then acted upon by program officers and other administrators, who are also scientists, at the NSF.

This brings us back to the ducks. Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks. Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for males to inseminate females. Males have counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas.

Our latest study examined how the presence of other males influences genital morphology. My colleagues and I found that it does so to an amazing degree, demonstrating that male competition is a driving force behind these male traits that can be harmful to females. The fact this grant was funded, after the careful scrutiny of many scientists and NSF administrators, reflects the fact this research is grounded in solid theory and the project was viewed as having the potential to move science forward as well as fascinate and engage the public. The research has been reported on positively by hundreds of news sites in recent years, even Fox news.

The commentary and headlines in some of the recent articles reflect outrage that the study was about duck genitals, as if there is something inherently wrong or perverse with this line of research. Imagine if medical research drew the line at the belt! Genitalia, dear readers, are where the rubber meets the road, evolutionarily. To fully understand why some individuals are more successful than others during reproduction, there may be no better place to look.

Generating new knowledge of what factors affect genital morphology in ducks, one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and exhibit violent sexual coercion, may have significant applied uses in the future, but we must conduct the basic research first. In the meantime, while we engage in productive and respectful discussion of how we envision the future of our nation, why not marvel at how evolution has resulted in such counterintuitive morphology and bizarre animal behaviour.

 

Patricia Brennan has a Ph.D. in behavioural ecology from Cornell University. She is currently a research professor in the department of biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she continues her research on the evolutionary consequences of sexual conflict.

 

-- Slate

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