Sunday, May 27, 2018
Perspective

Column: Why I study duck genitalia

In the past few days, the Internet has been filled with commentary on whether the National Science Foundation should have paid for my study on duck genitalia. As the lead investigator in this research, I would like to weigh in and offer some insights into the process of research funding by the NSF.

My research on bird genitalia was originally funded in 2005, during the Bush administration. Since Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards in the 1970s and 1980s, basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government "wastes" taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research. These arguments misrepresent the distinction between and the roles of basic and applied science.

Basic science is not aimed at solving an immediate practical problem. Basic science is an integral part of scientific progress, but individual projects may sound meaningless when taken out of context. Basic science often ends up solving problems anyway, but it is just not designed for this purpose.

Applied science builds upon basic science, so they are inextricably linked. Whether the government should fund basic research in times of economic crisis is a valid question that deserves well-informed discourse comparing all governmental expenses. As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy. The government cannot afford not to make that investment.

Congress decides the total amount of money that the NSF gets from the budget, but it does not decide which individual projects are funded — and neither does the president or his administration. Funding decisions are made by panels of scientists who are experts in the field.

This brings us back to the ducks. Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks.

Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for males to inseminate females close to the sites of fertilization and sperm storage. Males have counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas and blind pockets that prevent full eversion of the male penis.

Our latest study examined how the presence of other males influences genital morphology. My colleagues and I found that it does so to an amazing degree, demonstrating that male competition is a driving force behind these male traits that can be harmful to females.

That this grant was funded, after the careful scrutiny of many scientists and NSF administrators, reflects how this research is grounded in solid theory and that the project was viewed as having the potential to move science forward (and it has), as well as fascinate and engage the public. Most of the grant money was spent on salaries, putting money back into the economy.

The importance of evolutionary research on other species' genitalia to the medical field has been recently highlighted in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Generating new knowledge of what factors affect genital morphology in ducks, one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and exhibit violent sexual coercion, may have significant applied uses in the future, but we must conduct the basic research first.

In the meantime, while we engage in productive and respectful discussion of how we envision the future of our nation, why not marvel at how evolution has resulted in such counterintuitive morphology and bizarre animal behavior.

Patricia Brennan has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from Cornell University. She began her studies of avian genitalia at Yale University and Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. She is currently a research professor in the department of biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she continues her research on the evolutionary consequences of sexual conflict. © 2013 Slate

Comments
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Oh, Florida! Without air conditioning we’re a stinky swamp of sweat. With it, we warm the world

Oh, Florida! Without air conditioning we’re a stinky swamp of sweat. With it, we warm the world

As I write this, some workers are disassembling the 24-year-old air conditioning system in my house. They’re clunking and clanking around, tromping up and down my stairs, so they can replace the old system with a new one that presumably wonR...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
PolitiFact: Is Mike Pence right that religion is gaining new life in U.S.?

PolitiFact: Is Mike Pence right that religion is gaining new life in U.S.?

Speaking at a commencement ceremony at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Vice President Mike Pence told the graduates that religion in the United States is going strong."The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis ó praying...
Published: 05/17/18
Updated: 05/18/18
Column: Why baby steps toward cheaper drugs are the best we can do

Column: Why baby steps toward cheaper drugs are the best we can do

On the stump, Donald Trump the candidate promised big changes in the way America buys prescription drugs ó allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers, and allowing Americans to buy at the prices that Canada ...
Published: 05/15/18
Updated: 05/18/18
PolitiFact: Can Robert Mueller subpoena Donald Trump? A look at the legal precedents

PolitiFact: Can Robert Mueller subpoena Donald Trump? A look at the legal precedents

President Donald Trump has said heíd "love to speak" to special counsel Robert Mueller but that some of his lawyers advise against it.The latest member of Trumpís legal team, Rudy Giuliani, said Trump is under no obligation to comply with a subpoena ...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/13/18

Column: Moms looking out for daughters who need special medical treatment

Five years ago, shortly after celebrating Motherís Day, my mom watched as her oldest child was wheeled into brain surgery to undergo a procedure to help cope with the symptoms of early Parkinsonís disease. The operation, known as Deep Brain Stimulati...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Column: As the last Rosewood survivor dies, letís remember our duty to address injustice

Column: As the last Rosewood survivor dies, letís remember our duty to address injustice

Mary Hall Daniels was a child of 3 when a white mob destroyed her home and the predominantly African-American community of Rosewood in Levy County in 1923. The last survivor of what came to be known as the Rosewood massacre, Mrs. Daniels died on May ...
Published: 05/08/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Perspective: Let’s build a ‘house’ for Kerouac in St. Pete ... (no not that one)

Perspective: Let’s build a ‘house’ for Kerouac in St. Pete ... (no not that one)

Over my writing desk is a pop-art image of Jack Kerouac. He is so handsome. In purple, orange, and shades of green, it shows him in his prime, a typewriter in the corner and his words about the people he loves, the ones who "burn, burn, burn like fab...
Published: 05/07/18
Updated: 05/13/18
Five interesting facts

Five interesting facts

$171.5 millionis how much drug makers spent lobbying the federal government last year, more than any other industry.Just 36%of Republicans last year thought free trade had been good for the United States, down from 57 percent in 2009, according to th...
Published: 05/07/18
Updated: 05/13/18
A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

Another state has joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, bringing electoral reformers closer to their goal of sidestepping the Electoral College to elect presidents by a nationwide popular vote instead. Under the compact, states pledge ...
Published: 05/03/18
Updated: 05/13/18