Defending basic science

Today I heard a really great talk by Patricia Brennan, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studies sexual conflict and the evolution of duck penises, which have weird corkscrew shapes. Her research was attacked by many people who don’t understand the necessity for funding basic science, and she very eloquently defended her position in this article in April. Her defense of her research is notable in its uniqueness. Funding for basic science, particularly in evolutionary and organismal biology, is often under fire from politicians, the media, and the public. However, most scientists whose research is attacked do not defend themselves and their research. There are many reasons for this, but whatever the reason it prevents us scientists from educating the public about why basic science research is important.

Patricia Brennan’s seminar today convinced me that it is an incredibly important part of my job to help explain why basic research is important, which is why I’m writing this blog. Funding basic science research is important for many reasons, but one of the most basic ones is that EVERYTHING we use in daily life at one point stemmed from basic scientific research–clothing, antibiotics, computers, food, the list goes on and on. Patricia Brennan described scientific knowledge in an incredibly useful way: as a pyramid. Basic science provides the base for all scientific knowledge, and then applied research comes from innovative connections between pieces of the broad base of the pyramid and forms the upper point of the pyramid. In between is the so-called “translational research”, which is multidisciplinary work that bridges the gap between applied and basic science.

pyramid

 

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not bashing applied science. It’s obviously incredibly important. But in order to know how the world works so that new applications can be innovated, it is necessary to have basic research to make new discoveries. Because discoveries from basic research can result in transformational ways of seeing the world (such as the discovery of Taq polymerase, which lead to a revolution in molecular biology techniques), it is inherently risky (but can have huge rewards). Although I say it is risky, I don’t want to imply that research that doesn’t get translated directly to applications is worthless–indeed, it helps expand the base of the pyramid, creating a broader base so that more applications can be discovered down the road. Many important innovations have resulted from research that had no idea it would be transformative–such as the discovery of Taq polymerase, or increasing air travel safety by understanding bird migratory patterns, and many more.

I am so glad Patricia Brennan gave her seminar and continues to bring this issue to the attention of many people. Every person that I can help understand why science funding is important for science and for everyone is another person who will support science and perhaps a re-allocation of the national budget. I hope this makes my readers think about science in a new way, or if you’re a scientist to re-consider your stand on interactions with the general public. Please share this and ask me questions if you want to continue the discussion.

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