Squirrels, sex and politics
It was a bit of a nightmare when Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, biology professor at Laurentian University, found himself blindsided by a powerful Ontario politician's attack. Conservative leader John Tory said in a March press release that the biologist was wasting $150,000 of public money "studying flying squirrel sex."
Dr. Schulte-Hostedde isn't studying sex at all. He studies why some animals survive and some don't as environmental conditions (in this case, climate) change. But the attack was typical of a frighteningly easy way for any politician to make cheap points by targeting academic research in this country.
It's easy to manufacture a target for political cheap shots. Just over-simplify the research, and focus on one silly-sounding detail. Ten bonus points if it involves beer or sex.
For instance, here's my copy of Folio, the University of Alberta's research newspaper. They've got a guy studying manure at a beef feedlot, and he learned that if you turn the pile over it reduces the formation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Agriculture Canada evidently thought that was worth funding.
Turn the page. Here's a food science professor who has joined with chemical engineers to figure out whether hemicellulose, a byproduct of brewing beer, can be turned into a high-quality sweetener. There's funding from several Alberta agencies.
Now, you can look at these projects as a way to decrease pollution and a new way to manufacture a valuable food ingredient. Or you can say: "Taxpayers of Canada are paying ivory-tower professors to shovel manure and make bathtub beer! I'm shocked and appalled, just like the hard-working taxpayers of Canada who may not have PhDs but are still a lot smarter . . ." And so on.
Sure, you know your work was peer-reviewed before anyone allocated a penny for it. But that doesn't help when it comes under attack. And if you protest too much, you just sound stuffy and make the impression worse.
The defence that worked for Dr. Schulte-Hostedde was to stand up and explain in plain English why his work matters. He said: Nobody knows what happens to animals when climate changes, but we need to know. So I'm doing a long-term study of reproductive fitness in the wild. And I'm not watching these animals getting frisky - it's all blood tests and DNA work.
That plain approach put Mr. Tory on the defensive. He looked sheepish in a scrum at Queen's Park. Tried to make a joke (it didn't fly) and then mumbled the following unconvincing line: "I am not saying we shouldn't be doing lots of research on important medical and other kinds of topics including the environment." He once again said it was wrong to study "the sex life" of squirrels - only by this time everyone knew that wasn't the topic being studied.
It's lucky that Dr. Schulte-Hostedde got this chance to defend himself. Laurentian's administration began by telling reporters that no one would answer questions until a day later - when the story would have been old news. Luckily they eventually allowed the researcher to speak.
So what happens if a politician targets you?
Rule No. 1: Do not address it on goofy rush-hour radio shows, where you'll get a fast-talking host who wants to make you look stupid for 15 seconds and get you off the air.
Rule No. 2: Do talk to any newspaper or TV types who may call. You'll get a chance to spend time describing your work.
Rule No. 3: This is hard. Speak plain English. Hold on to a mental picture of some non-academic friend or neighbour, and tell him or her why your work is actually rather neat, especially if you can relate it to the life or interests of an average person.
Meanwhile a fashion professor at a British university (Manchester Metropolitan) has investigated the state of England's knickers, and found that one in 10 Brits wear the same underwear for three days in a row - or, yuck, longer. One in 20 turn them inside out for an extra day's wear. And 10 percent (doubtless men) have underwear a decade or more old. Mr. Tory would be shocked that such research is done. Myself, I'm fascinated.
Tom Spears is the science and environment reporter at the Ottawa Citizen.