Flower power 

Critics question stimulus funds spent on science

As University of Montana assistant professor Lila Fishman looks at rows of long-stemmed monkeyflowers inside a balmy campus greenhouse, she's the first to admit it's not the prototypical project most think of as vital to growing back the nation's economy. Yet Fishman's research, in which she aims to figure out how and why flowers procreate and what kind of offspring they produce, received $338,364 from last summer's federal stimulus package.

"It's better than the Arabidopsis," she says, providing a glimpse of geneticist humor while taking a jab at the monkeyflower's self-pollinating cousin. "At least it's pretty."

Fishman's award constitutes a small hunk of the $12.7 million UM received from the federal government to fund studies that address a range of issues, including primate brain activity, how birds fly and air quality challenges in Alaskan villages. Fishman says monkeyflower biology can be applied to a range of flowering plants, and her research could eventually advance the agricultural industry. Most importantly, it will cover new scientific ground and Fishman says her primary goal is to simply gain knowledge.

But Fishman's priorities don't sit well with some fiscal watchdogs. With the economy still struggling—more than 85,000 jobs were lost nationally last month alone—criticism of how the government spends stimulus dollars continues to mount. Andrew Moylan from the fiscally conservative National Taxpayers Union (NTU) questions the logic of using stimulus money for research that produces no immediately tangible benefit.

"To some folks, when they're thinking of the stimulus, they think of building bridges and roads and putting people back to work," Moylan says. "I'm not sure they think of monkeyflower studies."

Every dollar spent through the stimulus package represents an economic burden left to future generations, he says. Instead, Moylan argues the money should be used in areas that reap clear dividends. He's not sold on Fishman's research giving taxpayers the best bang for their buck.

"It may be good a good thing to research monkeyflowers, but it may be a better thing to put somebody to work creating a road," says Moylan. "Or, frankly, it may be a better thing to leave those tax dollars in their pockets in the first place so that they can pay their bills and feed their families."

Proponents of federally funded science couldn't disagree more with Moylan's reasoning. Dan Dwyer, UM's vice president for research and development, says if the government doesn't cough up cash to cover the cost of new research, chances are no one will.

click to enlarge University of Montana assistant professor Lila Fishman, right, received $338,364 in federal stimulus funding to study the yellow monkeyflower’s mating habits. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • University of Montana assistant professor Lila Fishman, right, received $338,364 in federal stimulus funding to study the yellow monkeyflower’s mating habits.

"The general population I don't think understands how important university-based basic research is to the economic well-being and the future of this country," Dwyer says.

Industrial powerhouses like AT&T and General Electric once devoted significant resources to expanding scientific know-how, but Dwyer says most private industry funding has gone away. Even pharmaceutical companies, once stalwart supporters of new research, are spending less on pricey studies, he says. That leaves universities holding the torch.

"Just about everything we are working with today, from computer chips to microwaves to medical imaging, all of these things have their basis in university-based research," he says. "It's an incredibly important national issue that we continue to support basic research at our universities."

Dwyer says UM's $12.7 million slice of the research-specific stimulus pie created the equivalent of 26.8 full-time jobs. He adds that the funding came from a pot of cash set aside by the federal government exclusively for science, meaning Fishman's monkeyflower research and the other UM studies never competed with "shovel ready" infrastructure projects. If the money didn't flow through UM—the school takes a cut of every grant—and into the local economy, it would have gone elsewhere. Lastly, if a UM researcher hits on a lucrative discovery, he says the university cashes in.

"This technology can lead to various spin-off companies, and the university has done that in a number of instances and actually grown the economy here in Montana," Dwyer says. "You never know when you're going to hit that home run and generate really significant amounts of resources."

Fishman says about 40 percent of her award went to the university. The remaining funds helped pay for a half-time greenhouse manager who tends to the monkeyflowers, as well as four students who work on the project. Since her study is one of the first of its kind to explore evolutionary scenarios among pollinating plants, she believes it will draw prospective students interested in plant biology.

Fishman feels confident defending the merits of her monkeyflower project, but she maintains that more is at stake than a political debate over her long-stemmed yellow flowers.

"We're looking to understand the fundamental processes that govern the diversity of life, and that's an exciting thing in its own right," she says. "It saddens me that there is an attitude out there that's pretty common that there has to be an explicit, immediate, practical application... Einstein wasn't trying to build a better light bulb, he was trying to understand how the world works."

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