At first glance, a lot of scientific research can seem pretty ridiculous. Studies about duck genitals and bisexual frogs have made the news recently, as examples of the frivolous ways tax dollars are being spent on projects that have no apparent benefit to the taxpayers. People wonder, “Why on earth are scientists wasting time and resources studying every insignificant detail about these animals?” It isn’t an entirely unreasonable question, but I think it implies a misunderstanding by the general public of how scientific research actually works. I’ll try to clear that up a little bit.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to look at the distinction between basic and applied scientific research. Basic science is concerned with increasing our understanding of everything, simply for the sake of satisfying our curiosity and acquiring new knowledge. Basic science questions can include things like, “Why are some people blonde and some people brunette?” or “What kinds of genetic differences can be found in different breeds of dogs?” In contrast, applied science is focused on using knowledge to solve a problem. Applied science questions might be, “How can we use this new chemical compound to treat diseases?” or “Can we make bridges that are stronger and lighter than the ones we have today?”
It isn’t surprising that most of the studies that are criticized as being wasteful fall into the category of basic science. However, most people fail to take into account the fact that without basic science, we wouldn’t have applied science. I think that studies about the neurons of giant squids really illustrate this point. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley developed mathematical models describing how giant squid neurons used electrical signals, called action potentials, to communicate. Arguably, studying squid brains is just as ridiculous as studying duck genitals, and would fall clearly in the camp of basic science. However, once scientists figured out how action potentials worked in one animal, they could test those models in other animals, including people.
Today, we look at Hodgkin and Huxley as two of the forefathers of modern neuroscience. Without them, we wouldn’t know how the brain communicates with the rest of the body, and many of the treatments for people with neurological disorders would never have been developed. Without basic science, applied science never would have happened.
Recently, a Congressman from Texas suggested that any project funded by the National Science Foundation must state how it “would directly benefit the American people.” I think his intentions are fine, but misguided. Sometimes, we can’t see the immediate benefit of a research project. I have no idea how an understanding of duck genitals or frog sexuality will make my life any better (the author of the duck study will tell you, though!), but I would have said the same thing about giant squid axons. We can’t let our shortsightedness get in the way of scientific progress.