Saturday, March 21, 2009

Earmarks for dummies

Many trivial-sounding "earmarks" are criticized as a waste of money, usually by people who don't understand the value of basic research.

Earmarks have faded from the news, pushed into the background by enormous bail-outs that are orders of magnitude larger than the supposed pet projects in the proposed federal budget.

Here are a few projects revealed earlier this month by New York Time columnist Maureen Dowd:

+$2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York. There's nothing funny about this to the growing U.S. wine industry. There are roughly 600 varieties of grapes, 54 of which comprise the main ingredients in most wines around the world.

Genetics are very important to wine.

Phyllorexa, a plant louse that loves grape leaves, appeared in the 18th century, first in America and then in Europe. Ultimately, after some back and forth, America began to provide phyllorexa-proof roots to Europeans, who graft on local grape varieties.

The point is, resistance to rot, insects, fungus, nematodes, etc. lies in genes, and the more we understand about grape genes, the safer the wine industry. California's wine industry alone is worth about $20 billion a year. So $2 million to assure its safety seems like a n0-brainer.

+ $1.7 million for a honey bee factory in Texas. Bees are essential to pollinating many crops, and bees are mysteriously disappearing. If the factory helps figure out what's going on the money will be well-spent.

+ $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. Big joke, except that pig poop could be a source of biofuel, either by collecting the methane it gives off as it rots, or through some other biomass process. Do you want to live next to a pig fuel plant? No, because of the odor. So this grant has a serious purpose.

+ $2 million to develop and promote astronomy in Hawaii. Part of the reason that astronomy is conducted in Hawaii is because the mainland is wasting prodigious amounts of light, lighting up the night sky and obscuring stars, galaxies, and possibly even some planets. The skies over Kitt Peak (near Tuscon, Arizona) are way clearer than the skies over the East Coast. But Arizona cities are spreading like phyllorexa.

What's important about astronomy? Are you curious about the origin and future of the universe and the solar system; life on other planets; or the possibility of colonizing Mars or predicting asteroid collisons? That's astronomy.

There's more, but you get the idea.

A couple of centuries ago, how ridiculous it would have seemed to study why apples fall to the ground. That story about Isaac Newton may be apoccryphal, but you never know where a simple question will lead.

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