California Academy's $1.9 Million in Stimulus Funds for Ant Study Angers Republicans

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$1.9 million to study lil' old me?
Scientist says he's putting people to work -- and compiling vital environmental data

Earlier this month, Republican Senators Tom Coburn (whom you haven't heard of) and John McCain (whom you have) fired off a 74-page compendium of what they claim are the most wasteful projects sucking at the teat of federal stimulus funds. Considering San Francisco's special place in the hearts of the nation's conservatives, it was inevitable a city-based project would make the list.

Surprisingly, hardly any did. But one of the projects that will likely cause Glenn Beck's audience to shake their fists with special vigor is based out of our fair city: The California Academy of Sciences received $1.9 million in stimulus funds to study ants in Madagascar. Reached this morning at the Academy, the project's leader, Brian Fisher, defended the use of money ostensibly earmarked to put Americans to work for the analysis of working insects.

The upshot of being made an exemplar of wasteful government spending didn't seem to faze Fisher, a relentlessly cheery man. "When I read the [Republicans'] report, I realized I have to do a lot better job of training people in bioliteracy and getting the word out about why this is important," he said. "I need to give a special pair of glasses to John McCain. You could call them bioliteracy glasses. When you're illiterate, you go into a library and you can't appreciate it; you see thinly stacked pieces of firewood. If you're bio-illiterate, you go into a forest and you can't appreciate it. All you can think of is chopping it down."

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Would you mind answering a few questions, Mr. Ant?
If that doesn't satiate the red meat crowd -- who likely wanted stimulus funds to put hard-hat wearing Americans to work and not fund scientific explorations to Africa to study ants -- maybe this will. Fisher points out that the $1.9 million in federal funds he's received is for five years -- something the Republican broadside failed to mention. He also notes that this money has already helped 16 scientists, programmers, videographers, and other American workers get jobs they wouldn't have otherwise had. Overall, more than 30 people are tied to the project.

But beyond that, Fisher feels his work is vital in the grander scope of things. His work, in brief, is to study the effect of human activity on the insects of Madagascar -- an isolated microcosm of the world. In the same way that Charles Darwin's groundbreaking theory of evolution via natural selection was derived in part from detailed observation of pigeons, Fisher hopes to glimpse at the bigger picture of how humanity is altering the environment by studying ants and other insects.

"We're really kind of leveraging everything we know about the environment and putting it in the hands of conservation decision-makers," he says. "Exploration, science -- it's a hard sell to the public. But there is another side. The other side is to mobilize scientific information associated with biodiversity [to address] the critical needs of society." That includes information about climate change, species invasions, and other events that do indeed affect both McCain and Coburn's constituencies.

Fisher also notes that "ants are great workers." With or without stimulus fund backing.

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