Misdirected Criticism of Palin's Fruit Fly Remark

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His Bad Medicine column appears each Tuesday on LiveScience. [Bad Medicine Column Archive]

Barack Obama supporters had a field day last week mocking Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin about her criticism of government-funded fruit fly research, which she used as an example of wasteful government spending.

Of course, Palin is an easy target when the topic turns to science. Reportedly a believer in biblical creationism, Palin is fine with the notion that Noah still had sharp enough eyesight at age 600 to identify male and female fruit flies and bring them onto the ark.

Remarkably, most of her critics were off-target. Right idea; wrong fly.

Wrong fly

The infamous fruit fly comment came on Oct. 24 during a speech in Pittsburgh, when she explained to the crowd how "[tax] dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."

I kid you not.

Ha, said the critics. Palin doesn't understand that fruit fly research, namely on Drosophila melanogaster, is the basis of human genetic research; that Thomas Hunt Morgan won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for demonstrating with fruit flies how inherited traits are passed to the offspring via the chromosomes; and that the latest Drosophila research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has uncovered a protein likely related to autism, the same disorder for which Palin wants more government-funded research.

But, to be fair, there's no way of telling from Palin's remarks whether she knows the difference between chromosomes and chrome. She wasn't talking about Drosophila. She was referring to research on the olive fruit fly, Bactrocera oleae, either knowingly or not.

Save the olives

The olive fruit fly is a costly pest in the olive-growing regions of the Mediterranean and, as of about ten years ago, in California. So the USDA is spending about $211,000 to study this pest where it is endemic, in Montpellier, France — way down in the south, perhaps the most distant French city from Paris. But Palin did get the country right.

Why is this research on Palin's radar screen? Probably because it was highlighted in the "2008 Congressional Pig Book Summary," a list of pork-barrel projects compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste. Specifically, the group awarded Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) the "French Kiss Off Award" for securing this research.

In reality, $211,000 is a paltry sum to help safeguard the nascent California olive industry, a potential $85 million market, according to research from the University of California, Davis. Most of the pork-barrel report concerns projects costing millions of dollars.

So at face value, no matter the type of fruit fly, Palin's comment seems to fly in the face of logic. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, one could argue that Palin ridiculed this fruit fly research because she opposes government spending for an agribusiness concern.

Fly in the ointment of forgiveness

Regardless of the level of Palin's fruit fly expertise, it's a sad day when politicians mock basic scientific research. The very notion of fruit fly research sounds funny and frivolous to a large percentage of the U.S. population, and that's a big problem.

In 1969, physicist Robert Wilson, the founding director of the Fermi National Laboratory, had to justify before Congress the construction of what was then to be the world's largest particle accelerator. In response to a question about the value of Fermilab in supporting national defense, Wilson said, "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

Today Europe now has the largest particle accelerator. Fermilab's budget was slashed by $60 million last year and many physicists there took pay cuts. America is still debating evolution. And politicians can conjure up words such as "France" and "fruit fly" to convince voters that we're on the eve of destruction.

You would think we could see fruit fly research as a means to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, albeit olive oil.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.