Why government-funded duck penis research is a good thing

Apparently, some segments of the media are just catching up to The Great Duck Penis Meme of 2007 and the video-enhanced version from 2009. If you've somehow managed to erase this from your memory (and lucky you), it turns out that duck penises are pretty freaky looking and can teach us a lot about how evolution works. Like a lot of basic research — the stuff that isn't directly about creating new products — duck penis studies have been funded by federal science grants. And this has put science writer Carl Zimmer in the awkward position of sticking up for duck erections. In a great piece at The Loom, he explains why silly-sounding research matters and why duck penises are not a waste of your tax dollars.


  1. As grateful as I am for the explanation the cynic in me still believes that those of us who are willing to read the explanation merely find it illuminating, while those who think duck penises are a waste of taxpayer dollars are going to think that no matter how it’s explained. 

  2. Why anyone would think anything with such a splendid title as ‘government-funded duck penis research’ could possibly be a bad thing, I do not know.Also, if the science is just about the rear end of the ducks, who’s left with the bill? HAH!

  3. I think most taxpayers would agree that all research has at least some value. Here, they have found a connection that might be useful to humans later on down the road. Studying just about anything could make those same connections.

    The argument is about importance. Why not put that money into cancer research or education? In these financially tough times, science should focus on only the most important research. There are plenty of research options that few would object to funding.

    1.  The whole point of basic research is that we don’t know what’s important until after we start looking around. If we only focus on the “important” stuff, we’ll miss the Big Picture.

      Brute curiosity is wonderful and necessary thing.

      1. This completely overlooks the most important queston. Who really deserves that dollar?  Job Creators, righteous and powerful?  Or some pointy-headed academic who is just going to squander it on duck penises?

      2. Brute curiosity is absolutely fine for personal endeavors and indeed, wonderful and necessary.

        However, when the money of others is being used, priorities are necessary. Many are affected by cancer, the high costs of energy, or educational inequality. When one study is funded, that means something else gets neglected. 

        Examining the viscosity of different kinds of ketchup or studying the best way to use a fork is fascinating, but I don’t believe one is missing the “Big Picture” by prioritizing the best and most applicable research.

        1. Cancer treatment depends heavily on things like lasers and NMR, which came out of brute curiosity. Some of our best hopes for energy sources are the same. So maybe just now we’ve discovered all the unexpected things we need to solve our problems…but would you really bet on it?

        2. The viscosity of ketchup is part of the study of “shear thinning”, a phenomenon that has tons of applications in the manufacturing industry. It could potentially even come back around to cancer research someday, by providing us with methods of manufacturing cell culture equipment or therapeutic/diagnostic tools that have yet to be invented.

        3. There is usually no profit incentive for basic research. Government funds it or it doesn’t happen, usually.

          Of course, private businesses and individuals benefit from it. . .

    2. You can’t just fund “cancer research.” “Cancer research” is an umbrella that encompasses a wide variety of projects, the vast majority of which began elsewhere. Linear accelerator technology was developed as a physics project before it was applied to radiation therapy. The cancer drug vincristine began first as an anthropology project (what traditional plant medicines do these cultures use?), then progressed to a diabetes research project, then, because of an observation that it caused myelosuppression, ultimately became a cancer drug (by way of organic chemistry).

      Basic science is the fuel for all applied research. We must first discover and attempt to understand something before we can work out applications for it. If you imagine research through the metaphor of industrial petroleum production, we must first find and extract the crude oil (basic research) before we can refine it to useful products like gasoline (applied research).

      1. I have conceded that we learn from all research. In my initial post, l said that all research has value. That is not my argument. My argument is that priorities need to be taken when spending taxpayer money.

        Do any of you believe nothing should take priority? Would you endorse giving researchers several billion dollars of taxpayer money to research anything they want, knowing that it might/might not have applications later down the road? Would you do the same for other government institutions like the military? I don’t think that is a good idea. There needs to be some oversight and a rigorous application process.

        If we want to keep science well-funded, it is essential that taxpayers know they are getting a good return on their investment and science is looking into things they care about. I love science and want to see it thrive. As an added bonus, by prioritizing, we can avoid PR mishaps.

        1. You aren’t listening. There already is a rigorous application process. What you see are studies funded via that process. The grant cash does not rain from the sky – it is awarded after tough competition between researchers for grants. Grant committees read thousands of applications and award grants to researchers who they feel are working on projects likely to prove worthy of funding. The system is not perfect (no system can be), but it works quite well.

          Individual taxpayers are not equipped to understand the intricacies of the grant process, any more than they are equipped to understand the intricacies of the investment structure that underlies the Social Security program or the organization of FEMA response. No one person, particularly not a lay person, can contain the combined expertise necessary to make informed decisions about what is important and what is not. That’s the reason the government creates agencies – to concentrate groups of experts tasked with pondering and acting on these questions.

          Nobody advocates giving billions away with no strings attached. I am advocating the preservation of funding levels for basic science research without shunting that funding to applied research based on a misguided idea of what science’s “priorities” need to be.

          1. Thank you for your well-written response. I think we may have to disagree on this one, though.

            I believe (perhaps too optimistically) people generally have a basic idea of scientific worthiness. This explains the outcry when a story like this gets attention. Again, while every study has some merit, people are paying the bill here (no pun intended).

            If we want to see continued funding for sciences, it is absolutely essential that researchers communicate the validity of their research with the public. People who distribute the grants should do the same. The better the oversight, the more applicable the research, the more people will appreciate what these grants do and see a real impact in their lives.

            When that happens, science funding will be the last thing people will want to see cut. As of now, some studies act to misrepresent the valuable research being done. These studies unfortunately serve as talking points for people wanting to cut science budgets. I really don’t want to see that happen.

  4. The majority of the people complaining about duck penis research are not demanding it be eliminated as a waste of money but using it to show the way the White House is setting its priorities in funding.  Things like duck penises research, Obama administration travel expenses and White House dinner parties get full funding while school children are denied White House tours and US Marines in combat are told to ration fuel and ammunition.

    1. It’s an enormous shame that rationing sending them out to fight foolish wars isn’t considered a high priority way to stop wasting money. That’s the kind of belt-tightening fiscal responsibility I’d like to see…

      1.  WHAT?! And this devil-may-care attitude to the dollars of those brave, brave taxpayers hasn’t been nipped in the bud? THANKS OBAMA!

  5. Well. Call me a lone-quack-in-the-wilderness, but:

    Was Nixon’s book called, “Six Crisises”? (Is this phrase contained within parenthesises?) Did Martin Luther nail his 95 Thesises to the church door?

    I DON’T THINK SO. And, likewise, the research in question concerns duck penes. 

    1. `penis’ sounds silly enough already. `pee-knees’ is just beyond the pale, though i guess it does evoke some informative imagery, however urolagnic.

      1.  Mainly, that people would pack it the fuck in with saying ‘Legos’. Boils my piss, that.

  6. If I learn’t anything from the writings of Rand, it’s that duck penis research should rest firmly in the skilled and capable hands of the private sector.

  7. Speaking as a scientist, the problem is not with the duck penis research but the wasted money that goes for institutional overhead, page charges for for-profit journals (and the library space to house them). We could double the amount of money available for science if we banned the institutional pork. I’d be willing to bet a biology prof in a community college could do the exact same research, of the same quality, for a tenth as much.

  8. What about the overhead of government bureaucrats? If people are passionate about research they should fund it. Not require others to do so.

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