Too good to check. Federal grant for studying… duck genitals

posted at 3:31 pm on April 28, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

There’s no point in beating around the bush on this one, if you’ll pardon the pun. We should probably get right to the bottom of this fowl story.

WASHINGTON: Patricia Brennan received $384,949 from the U.S. government to study duck genitalia.

Last month, that made her a national joke. Now, it’s made her a little bit of a folk hero…

The federal grant that started this controversy is tiny, at least among the big numbers of the federal budget. The National Science Foundation, which gave her the grant in 2009, got $5.9 billion for all its research this year.

But these debates are about choices embedded in the federal budget. As in: If nobody else will provide funding to study the secrets of duck genitals, does the government have a moral obligation to do it?

The NSF says yes. A civilized culture needs people studying things that might never make anybody any money. One of Brennan’s collaborators, for instance, studies why bluebirds are blue. What he has found could change the way paint is made.

As amusing as it might be to talk about Dr. Brennan getting nearly half a million of your dollars to study the naughty bits of ducks, there’s more which can be learned from this story. (As an aside, I’m sure there are advances to be made in the cutting edge field of making paint, but … studying why bluebirds are blue?) Every time an election rolls around we hear politicians talking about the running joke of “waste, fraud and abuse” in the government. This is a joke, not because it’s not a very real problem, but rather because they all know that they’re not going to do anything about it. We hear them talking about “taking a fine tooth comb to the budget.”

Apparently there are no combs for sale in Washington these days.

But while $385K isn’t even a rounding error in the federal budget – nor even the entire NSF budget of nearly $6B for that matter – these types of examples are only a few among a field of thousands, if not tens of thousands. If there actually were somebody going through the budget line by line and bringing the details to the attention of the public, surely we could find a gold mine of potential savings which voters would gladly see trimmed.

Further, this plays into the entire idea of the sequester. The “draconian cuts” came to pass and the world didn’t grind to a halt. We have hundreds of agencies which have operated for as long as we can remember, getting the same budget and frequently the same increases year after year. They are often warned that they need to make sure they spend all the money they get, even if they don’t really need it, or they might have a lower budget the next year. But when some cuts went into place with no opportunity for appeal, they somehow found a way to tighten their belts and do pretty much the same work with fewer resources.

It’s amazing what you can do when necessity is what’s driving you. A few more cases of duck genital studies and we just might find the will to break out that comb and start digging.


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