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Saturday, February 2, 2013

National Science Foundation: $400,000 for Guppy Study

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has requested $7.373 billion from Congress for fiscal year 2013, an increase of $340 million (4.8%) over 2012. According to an announcement on Thursday, $400,000 of that (spread over three years) will be going to fund guppy research.  Colorado State University announced the grant on January 31st for a study to investigate "the effects of genes moving from one population to another." The press release explains further:
Chris Funk and Lisa Angeloni, assistant professors of biology at CSU, and their student teams tackle the dilemma of when to artificially induce migration between populations to rescue them from decline by getting up close and personal with Trinidadian guppies. These small fish, although not at risk of extinction themselves, make for an excellent model system to study the effects of introductions on local adaptation and population growth.
    The purpose of the study is help biologists develop strategies for helping to rescue declining species from extinction. Conservation is a noble and justifiable (in some cases) goal and government's role dates back at least to President Teddy Roosevelt, although the National Science Foundation did not come along until 1950. However, "conservation" has taken a hit as efforts have sometimes focused on what appear to be less than justifiable goals (the snail darter, the Northern spotted owl, and some kind of desert rat whose exact name escapes me at the moment.)

    Currently, however, the United States government is over $16 trillion dollars in debt. Spending $400,000 on conservation at this juncture just doesn't pass the if-you-don't-need-it-to-keep-the-lights-on test (especially when the subject of the study is guppies, whose current world population according to my completely unscientific estimate is coincidentally also just over 16 trillion.) As an accountant, I just can't help thinking it ironic that in my line of work, the acronym of the National Science Foundation, NSF, is more commonly interpreted as Non Sufficient Funds  -- meaning a bounced check.

    Now I am sure for every example like the guppy study (or any number of examples Sen. Tom Coburn came up with a couple of years ago in his report on the NSF,) someone can give an example of how an NSF grant produced some remarkable discovery that has improved life for everyone (and not just guppies.) But until the U.S. government starts seeing a lot more black ink in the balance column of its check register, the National Science Foundation should have to face the fact that the taxpayers have bigger fish to fry.

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