Chilling implications for science from the top
The first of the 2008 presidential debates between Senator John McCain and the now-president, Barack Obama, was held at the University of Mississippi on September 26, 2008. It was primarily about foreign policy and national security, which, by definition, included the global financial crisis for which the Government had just allocated $700 billion to solve. Added to that, another unnecessary expense - the war in Iraq, had eaten through $600 billion. When asked what he would do as president to lead his country out of the financial crisis, John McCain stated:
“Well, the first thing we have to do is get spending under control in Washington. It's completely out of control.”
One would imagine that he would then suggest avoiding wars and pulling the financial industry into line. But, instead, he said something with chilling implications for science:
“You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control.”
How do we equate hundreds of billions of dollars with a few millions of dollars? Let's think about it as a jigsaw puzzle: a scientific jigsaw puzzle where we divide $1300 billion into pieces worth $3 million would have 433,333 pieces. On the 28th of November 2008 the number of pieces increased to 700,000 when the US Government contributed another $800 billion towards solving the financial crisis. By contrast, the largest conventional jigsaw puzzle - the 4 × 2 m monster with 24,000 pieces that Eric Smith conquered in 179 days in 2008, is a fragment!
The challenge for scientists is to convince those at the top and the rest of society that genotyping the bears in Montana is money well spent.