Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fox Meets Beetles

If you haven’t seen the video clip that I’ve embedded in this post, take a few minutes to watch it (5 minutes and 28 seconds, to be precise). Then read on.

So here’s the background to this clip. As you may know, in February 2009, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a Keynesian economic measure intended to counter the drop in consumer spending caused by the recession. Some of the $787 billion released by the act went directly into the pockets of the American public in the form of tax cuts and expansions in benefits. Other funding went to domestic spending in education, health care, and infrastructure, including the energy sector. And some money, believe it or not, went to science, in the form of additional funds doled out by various agencies including NSF, which received an extra $3 billion.

NSF chose to distribute this money by awarding grants to high quality projects in the 2009 funding round that it was unable to support because of limits to the available funding. In the case of the Improvements to Biological Research Collections (BRC) program, this included a grant to Michigan State University to address specimen housing problems in their entomology collections.

For those of you who haven’t come across the BRC program, it is an invaluable source of support to natural history collections. Each year, NSF provides funding (around $6 million this year) that goes to support new cabinets and drawers, databasing, specimen imaging, and staff. The agency does this because natural history collections form part of the nation’s scientific infrastructure; they are a research facility, just like large telescopes, particle accelerators, or supercomputers. Collections and their associated data support research across a wide range of environmental and life sciences.

Conservatives don’t like ARRA – they don’t think the solution to America’s problems lies with more spending by the Federal government that increases the national debt. There is a case to be answered here involving economics that is way outside of my area of experience, but as far as the mass of the American public is concerned, the debate involves whiny-voiced blowhards like Fox News’ Sean Hannity taking cheap shots and getting applause from the peanut gallery (oops, there goes my claim to impartiality).

Hannity recently launched “Waste 102,” which listed 102 ways in which the government was wasting US taxpayer’s money by giving funds to what he feels are undeserving projects. You can see the full list of these here. Note that the descriptions are deliberately distorted to give a very poor impression of the projects concerned. We’ll see this when we look in detail at #102, which Hannity refers to as “Protecting a Michigan insect collection from other insects.”

Hannity sent his henchman, Tucker Carlson, off to East Lansing MI to interview Anthony Cognato, Curator of the Entomology Collection and Principal Investigator on the offending grant. I think it’s fair to say that the interview did not go well, at least from Cognato’s point of view. Initially I thought this might be the result of biased editing on the part of Fox. Then I watched the unedited version, which you can see here if you’re interested.

When I raised this issue with some of my colleagues, it generated a lot of shrugging, accompanied by statements along the lines of “well, it’s Fox News – what do you expect.” Which rather misses the point. Fox certainly went gunning for Cognato, but the questions that Carlson asked were actually not unreasonable ones for anyone receiving taxpayer $$. If you get a grant, you ought to be able to defend your use of public funds. So, in the interest of any of my fellow curators and collection managers who find themselves in this situation in the future, I decided to watch the interview again and figure out what I would have said.

“How did you get this money?”

Well, it’s not easy. Only about 16% of proposals to NSF get funded, so it’s very competitive and you have to have a really good proposal. You have to say why your collection deserves support, demonstrate its importance in terms of research and education, and explain in detail how the project will directly benefit the American public. It gets assessed by scientists who are experts in your field, and then gets reviewed by another expert panel. Only if it passes all of those hurdles and gets a high enough rating is there a chance that it will be funded.

“What was your reason for asking for funding?”

These collections are incredibly important for supporting research in life sciences, human health, agriculture etc. The problem is that they are very fragile. Dried insects are very vulnerable to attack by other insects – if you think about it, there are many species that live by scavenging dead organisms, including insects. And that’s what natural history collections are – collections of dead animals and plants. Insect pests can completely destroy a collection so that its no longer usable. The problem with our old cabinets is that they weren’t good at stopping pests from getting at the collection.

“So bugs were eating your bugs. What were you doing about it?”

One short-term way of dealing with pests in the collection is to freeze the drawers with the specimens in them. That can kill the insects, if it's done right. The problem is that this takes a lot of time and effort and when you put the drawers back in the cabinet they can get infected by pests again. It’s not good for the specimens to keep freezing and thawing them and it’s expensive, and not good for staff, to spray a lot of pesticides around. So the most cost-effective way of dealing with the problem in the long term is to buy cabinets and drawers that stop the pests from getting in.

“What jobs did this create?”
Museum storage furniture tends to be built by the sort of small to medium-sized American companies that really suffer in recessions. They depend on federally funded museum projects to keep their sheet metal workers and carpenters in work. Then you have to think about the people that deliver the cabinets; the truckers and movers. They depend on work like this as well. We also employ four students on the grant. It’s hard for students to stay in full time education when money is tight, so student jobs like this are vital and a lot better experience than flipping burgers.

“If someone asked ‘why is this a good investment of my tax dollars, to save these bugs from other bugs, how would you respond?”
Museum collections like this one provide the data that underpins scientific effort across a whole host of fields that affect the health and wellbeing of ordinary Americans. Take agriculture, for example. It’s a major industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs across the United States, that is essential to our economic health, and that puts food on your family’s table. Our crops and livestock are vulnerable to attack by insects and collections like this are the source of the information that helps scientists develop new treatments and mechanisms for controlling pests. If the collections are destroyed, all of that information is lost forever. If you look at it that way, $187,000 over 2 years is a pretty good deal for the tax payer.

Now, I’m not saying I’d have been anywhere as lucid as this if someone shoved a camera in my face, but there are a few key points that you need to hang on to – national interest, critical resource, affects ordinary people, provides good value for money – that you need to get across in this situation, regardless of whether it's Fox News or the guy from the local free newspaper.

The interesting and encouraging thing is that when you look on the comments on YouTube, people got this. They managed to see past the smoke and mirrors that Fox erected and actually identified most of the points I listed above. And that’s a good thing, on many, many levels.


  1. Hi Chris, thanks for posting this. I am an Australian scientist, and I hadn't come across this "list" yet... how very scary that people think like this. So many on the list seem like great ideas, both the science-y and non-science-y ones! I hope that most people can see through this - I know it's the job of these "journalists" to be shock jocks and deliberately stir up debate, but surely this is irresponsible and misleading at best. So many things on the list are just part of having a healthy vibrant society. I like your suggestion of being able to state clearly the "value" of one's research. However, what about scientific inquiry simply for the sake of learning more about how the world works? Basic research is still crucial for building our collective knowledge. Sometimes I find that hard to justify to people who ask, in terms of dollar values.

  2. @Lynds - thanks for the post. I think you're right and there's a strong argument that we need to fund research that builds collective knowledge, regardless of whether there is a $$-value outcome. Whether it's possible to convince Joe Public of the value of this when the economy is nose-diving is another matter - it's certainly a challenge. The issue with this particular case is that Fox had an route to attack MSU because the stimulus funds were intended to generate jobs. Nonetheless, their arguments were bogus. I had a meeting with the CEO of Delta Designs last week - they are a company that manufacture cabinets with a workforce of ca. 50 - and he was furious when we told him about this interview; in addition to his company, he reeled off a list of suppliers that depend on these federal funds for their business. That's the sort of information that any curator should have at their disposal if they get into this sort of situation.