Friday Golden Fleece: Wildflowers in a Ghost Town

Colorado wildflowers

Colorado wildflowers. Photo by Aeravi.

In response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus) Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain published a Stimulus Checkup in December, 2009. This pamphlet concludes that “…billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” and, not surprisingly, many of the projects so identified are federally funded scientific studies. Number 35 in this list is an NSF grant to Dr. David Inouye and colleagues:

35. Study of Wildflowers in a Ghost Town ($448,995)

A few dilapidated buildings are largely what remains in Gothic, Colorado, a ghost town that is also home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Over the next five years, however, Gothic will host a $448,995 National Science Foundation study by Dr. David Inouye on the impact of climate change on the town‘s wildflowers. In recent years [sic] have been reportedly impacted by late season frost that he believes is caused by global warming. According to the Denver Post, however, after a visit to the town this past spring, with the bounty of wildflowers filling the meadows and blooming in the crannies of Colorado‘s high country, you‘d never guess that some of them are in trouble.

Before we get to the the outcomes of this waste of taxpayer money, let’s deconstruct this paragraph a bit. Right from the start, we’re shown a study taking place in the middle of nowhere: “A few dilapidated buildings…a ghost town…” The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) is an afterthought. Not mentioned is that RMBL is a world-class facility for ecological research. Also not mentioned is that RMBL is home to a then 37-year (now 43-year) study on the effects of climate change on over 100 species of wildflowers. The grant in question funded a five-year extension of this study, so maybe that’s relevant (it’s right there in the abstract, which Coburn & McCain cite). Then there are the effects that Dr. Inouye “…believes are caused by global warming.” Believes? Sounds like Dr. Inouye’s opinion, no better or worse than anyone else’s. Let’s say instead “has evidence.”

Finally, there’s the concluding quote mine. This won’t likely be the last time that the phrase ‘quote mine’ appears on this blog, so I’ll take a minute to explain exactly what I mean. To me, there are two criteria for something to qualify as a quote mine. First, it should be taken out of context. Pretty much everything that’s quoted meets this criteria: my block quote above is taken out of the context of items #34 and 36. More importantly, the lack of context or the new context should imply that the quote means something other than what (the original context makes clear) it was intended to mean. The whole point of the Denver Post article that is quoted is that the wildflowers are in trouble. Taken out of context, it seems to say the opposite. So, yeah, it’s a legitimate quote mine. In the new context, it implies that Dr. Inouye is studying how climate change is hurting flowers that aren’t in trouble anyway. This is positively (and I suspect intentionally) dishonest.

What about the research outcomes? The funded research showed, among many other things, that more species are changing their flowering times than was previously suspected. It showed that these changes affect the abundance of pollinators, such as butterflies and hummingbirds, and that the hummingbirds in particular could be in serious trouble if current trends continue. Some of these effects are caused by timing mismatches between plants and pollinators: if a hummingbird is breeding, or an insect reaching maturity, when the flowers on which it relies are not blooming, both the pollinator and the plant are likely to have a hard time of it. This kind of mismatch has the potential to disrupt entire communities, and the resulting changes in species composition have the potential to affect more than pretty fields of wildflowers. Around 35% of our crops, with a total value around $56 billion per year in the U.S. alone, depend on animal (mostly insect) pollination, so disruption of pollinator abundances has the potential for serious economic impact. Compare that last number to the $450,000 spent to continue this study: does this grant still sound frivolous?

As a final note, I have the benefit of hindsight when I’m evaluating how productive these grants have been (although five or six years is an awfully short time to judge the impact of a research program). Senators Coburn and McCain had no such advantage when they declared these projects wastes of taxpayer money. And maybe that should have inspired caution. Federal grants go through a rigorous (and effective) peer review process, and funding rates are so low (less than 10% in many cases) that many very good proposals are nevertheless not funded (if, like me, you’ve had your share of grants rejected, that language will sound familiar). Peer reviewers at this level are nearly always working scientists in the same field as the proposal, people who have spent their professional lives studying the same kinds of problems. When someone who has probably never read a funded proposal (does anyone think that Senators Coburn and McCain did?) judges it worthless, they are making an implicit assertion that they know better than the peer reviewers what is worthwhile science. Think about that the next time a politician accuses scientists of arrogance.

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