Knowledge and decision making

I’m not an Olberman fan; I find him a little too shrill and cranky to watch with any regularity. So, I embed a segment from his show with a little bit of trepidation, only using it to start making a point about science, scientific research, and how understanding these things are important in leadership.

I know everyone is on the Palin-slamming bandwagon, and with the material she provides it is all too easy to do. At this point I am, if nothing else, just in awe that she was tapped to be on the McCain ticket. I’m also blown away that her handlers and speech writers aren’t doing a better job in keeping her clear of these blunders.

But I digress. It really is stunning that a public politician seems to lack an understanding of science and would attempt to make a facile point about spending, only to shoot herself in the foot. You see, taking a cheap shot at fruit fly research makes no sense when also talking about special needs children. Fruit flies are an important tool and standard model in understanding gene-linked and developmental disorders such as autism. This sort of work is so important that the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to a group of researchers that pretty much exclusively used fruit flies in their work.

But really, this is about big-picture thinking. It’s not enough to say something like “let’s cure autism”. You can’t just poke at autistic kids to do that. We need to increase the size of our research knowledge in areas of genetics, molecular biology, and developmental biology. We have to develop better tools to detect genetic abnormalities, toxic conditions, or other things that haven’t even been thought of yet in connection to ASD diagnoses.

All of these things can be done with a combination of public and private funds. This is the very stuff for which grants and endowments exist. It’s this search for knowledge which may not have a direct or immediate impact on health but might cascade into a sea change in the treatment of diseases. And this is precisely the type of research that we should frugally spend some funds on for the betterment of humankind and to make America a world-wide leader in science. A good leader must understand that.

Update: The research Olberman speaks of at UNC has already yielded some useful knowledge about the formation and function of neurons. The specific grant Palin was referencing is a mere $211k earmark made by California Congressman Mike Thompson for research regarding fruit fly threats California’s olive crops. It should be noted that this earmark was the first item on the 2008 awards page by the Citizens Against Government Waste, which makes it look all the more like Palin speech writers are just haphazardly grabbing info they can parrot off the internet without digging any further.