BY ANN BAAKO ’18
Duck penises are explosive. The corkscrew-shaped organs, which are normally hidden beneath a cavity at the end of a duck’s digestive tract, shoot out to as long as eight inches; within a third of a second, the male duck ejaculates its sperm into the female to complete what is usually a forced sexual encounter. Ninety-seven percent of male birds do not have penises at all (usually, the penis-less male mushes its genital opening with the female’s and transfers sperm into the female’s vagina in a maneuver known as the “cloacal kiss”). Because of how rare penises are in the bird world, duck penises have captured bird lovers’ attention. When the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is funded by American tax dollars, handed out a $384,949 grant to Patricia Brennan and her supervisor at Yale University to explore “plasticity in duck penis length,” online conservative news agencies exploded.
Conservative News Service (CNS) first reported the story in 2013 and it spread to other online news platforms. “Government’s wasteful spending includes $385G Duck Penis Study,” read S.A. Miller’s headline in The New York Post. And it wasn’t only conservative websites. Politifact.com asked the riveting rhetorical question: “Is the Federal Government funding a study on duck penises?” Two days after the CNS article was published, Fox News ran a public poll on whether duck penises were worth studying. As of today, a whopping 86.42% of the respondents have ticked the box that says “No – what a quack! A government looking to cut back shouldn’t be wasting money on anything like this.”
It was Patricia Brennan’s persuasive research proposal that triggered this online uproar, although the articles did not explicitly mention her name. But anyone who was motivated enough could Google “duck genitalia research,” and Patricia Brennan’s name would be the first to show up.
Brennan, who is now a professor at Mount Holyoke, has an office that is littered with ducks – wooden ducks, different species of fluffy, stuffed ducks and even a yellow rubber ducky. Featured on her shelf of animal biology books is a glass-framed blue duck vagina. Framed pictures of a mallard duck, a black-bellied whistling duck and a fulvous whistling duck stare at visitors. At any moment, one could expect a live duck to walk in. But maybe not, because it might be scared away by the gigantic sperm whale penis that stands next to Brennan’s desk. This was a gift from her father-in-law, a reminder of the marine biology research she undertook at the Galapagos Islands after receiving her undergraduate degree in Colombia, her country of birth. On the wall next to her desk, Carl Zimmer’s 2007 New York Times article “In Ducks, War Of the Sexes Plays Out In the Evolution Of Genitalia” hangs, framed. Zimmer wrote about Brennan’s research in this article, as did Carolyn Johnson in her 2013 Boston Globe article, “The Whole Point Of Science: To Make Discoveries, Whether Useful Or Not,” which also hangs in Brennan’s office.
Brennan’s immediate reaction when she first saw an erect duck penis in 2005, while working as a behavioral ecologist at Yale was, “Oh my God, these penises are huge!” and that prompted her to wonder how it was used. “What’s going on in the female, then?”
Brennan claims to be the first to discover that female ducks had vaginas with spiraled ridges that twirled in a direction opposite to the twists on the male penises. The vagina also had blind pockets to provide some resistance to penetration. This was all evidence that the male penises might actually have evolved to fit better into the female’s sexual organ and that was why these penises were so weirdly shaped. The exaggerated penis length, the speed with which ejaculation occurred, and the blind pockets in the vaginas could also have evolved from the “rape culture” that male ducks are known to have. In 2005, Brennan penned a post-doctoral proposal titled “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia” that aimed at examining this “rape culture” in ducks. The NSF deemed her project worthy of funding.
How does the structure of a duck’s sexual organ fit into the United States’ economic agenda? Is exploratory science, born out of mere curiosity and with no apparent human application, worthy of tax payers’ money at all? Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s 2013 “Wastebook,” which details what Coburn deems to be unnecessary federal spending, included Brennan’s duck study as well as a “$325,525 study that found that wives would be happier if they could calm down faster during arguments with their husbands” and a “$150,000 [fund] to support the Puppets Take Long Island festival in Sag Harbor.” On the surface, these might sound like a waste of money, particularly during a government sequester, which was what was happening at the time that CNS discovered the duck penis fund. Many would argue that science research should not be politicized. But still, duck penises? How does that help taxpayers?
Even among scientists, there is an ongoing debate about the relevance of basic science, which is what scientists call exploratory research without a predetermined goal. Lonnie Aarsen, professor of plant ecology and evolution at Queens University in Canada, wrote in the 2013 Bioscience Journal that “curiosity-driven research, with no particular societal benefit in mind, has run its course.” To Aarsen, there should be a clear connection between any seemingly playful research and socioeconomic need. For these same reasons, private agencies will hardly ever fund basic science research — if it doesn’t solve cancer, they aren’t buying it. In the United States, it is only the NSF that will show mercy toward basic science research, and it is the primary benefactor of such exploratory studies.
. . .
Receiving a grant from the NSF is no easy task. Research proposals are about 15 pages long and have two main requirements. First, the applicant must assess the intellectual merit of their project, explaining how it will improve and transform the field of research. Second, they should address the broader social and economic impacts of the proposed study (For Brennan, this included training graduate students, undergraduate students and students from underrepresented minorities. It also involved creating museum exhibits where people could visualize and appreciate animal biology). The proposal then undergoes rigorous critique by a panel of scientists who have experience competing for similar grants.
Even if they meet some will be rejected due to limited funding. Acceptance begins to boil down to factors such as the geographical location of the research. The NSF tries to give similar amounts of funding to every state. This makes competition for NSF funding more intense in states with many universities, such as Massachusetts. The NSF judges also consider where the applicant is in their career, as they aim to spread money evenly between younger and older researchers in similar fields. Younger applicants with very good ideas might receive preference over older ones who have had more exposure to the application process. Finally, underrepresented minorities’ projects are at an advantage. As a young, Colombian scientist working in Connecticut, a small state with only a handful of universities, all these factors worked in Brennan’s favor.
It can take a whole year before the NSF gets back to researchers. At that point, they are required to publish the titles of every funded research project. Once this document is in circulation, those concerned about unreasonable government spending sift through and identify which research they feel is wasteful.
Basic science critics tend to assume that all human innovation stems from logically planned research with a predetermined application, but this is not always the case. Consider the kingfisher bird’s beak and the owl’s noise-dampening wings. People who were studying these animals found that owls are extremely quiet when hunting for prey and bird beaks contribute to smooth flying. Then, in turn, the Japanese bullet train was designed mimicking the aerodynamic shapes of kingfisher bird beaks and the sound-dampening qualities of owl feathers so that the trains are quiet in residential areas. Studying the appendages of the mantis shrimp led to the development of military armor for soldiers. Geckskin, a glue-free adhesive pad that can hold up to 700 pounds against a wall, came from decades of research on gecko movement. In terms of human health, Exenatide, a promising new diabetes drug, was developed based on studies of the composition of the venom of the Gila monster. Brennan believes that understanding the factors that affect genital structure in ducks, which are one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and display violent sexual behavior, may help to shed light on human sexual deficiencies.
When CNS first published the article concerning Brennan’s “wasteful” research, she set up a Google Alert to notify her about anything on the Internet that cited the term, “duck penis.” In the next few hours, Brennan received what she refers to as “a snowball of negative commentary.” On March 20, @keithcrc tweeted, “Can’t cut spending b/c need $ to fund more studies of duck penis length.” @doctrine_man heard the news the next day and posted, “‘His name is Long Duck Dong.’ When you’re enjoying your furlough, remember that duck penis length matters.” She began to feel personally attacked, as this was a discovery she had single-handedly made and was very passionate about. Other researchers came to her rescue, publishing articles that explained the importance of her work, but Brennan still felt a strong urge to join the conversation. “I felt like if I didn’t speak, then I was agreeing that there was something wrong.”
Brennan set out to write the article “Why I Study Duck Genitalia — Fox News and Other Conservative Sites Miss the Point of Basic Science” as an Op-Ed for the New York Times. The paper was not interested in publishing her piece, perhaps because they had already published related articles by her defender, Carl Zimmer. But Slate, an online news magazine, took her story up right away. In a few days Brennan’s post went viral. She was quoted in articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker and Mother Jones. Brennan mentions that in order to write that Slate article, she had to stop everything she was doing for two weeks to dive into the literature distinguishing basic science from applied science. “Yes, it sounds kind of frivolous, doesn’t it? So how do you explain [duck penis research] when there is hunger in the world?” she had asked herself. Publishing this article put her in the limelight, now open to direct attack. But she received only one negative comment from a guy who wrote, “You are a very stupid woman.” And that was it.
MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes picked up Brennan’s story after it was published. On his show “All In,” Hayes discussed the benefits of duck penis research and brought Brennan’s achievements to a much larger audience than she would ever have reached alone. Fox News’ Sean Hannity also picked up the story. According to Brennan, Hannity invited her to appear on his show and discuss her recent piece for Slate. Brennan responded to his email with these questions: “What is the goal of the segment? How are you going to introduce me? What questions are you going to ask? Are you going to edit this after we record [it]? Am I going to have a say on how the edits are going to happen?” Hannity never wrote back to her.
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As she sits in her Mount Holyoke office, Brennan reflects on how she has since become a hero of her field, having been invited to speak at places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science to defend “oddball” research. She has essentially become “the face of basic science,” and has set up outreach programs and written articles that help people defend their research in the event of backlash.
Through it all, Brennan has realized that “we assume that people intrinsically value science, but we shouldn’t assume that. Because if they don’t understand the process, how are they going to value it?”