Friday, August 1, 2014

In Defense of "Pointless" Research

A comment found in this article. Emphasis mine.
My pet peeve is the idea among members of the general public that some research is more important than other research, and that they get to decide what is significant and what is not.  You see it often in politics, on the news, and in the comments section of many science articles: yeah, cool research bro, but will it cure cancer?  I am a biologist deep down to my core, and I hate (HATE) the idea that absolutely everything must relate back to human medicine and well-being to be interesting or valid research.  Research funding allocation is increasingly based on how much "impact" the research has.  Whatever happened to research for the sake of research?  I hear people lament the lack of good, solid, game-changing scientific discoveries, but maybe it's because we penalize research for the sake of research and expanding the limits of knowledge, and only reward productive research.
Why does research always have to DO something?  We like research that makes new, marketable projects, creates jobs, or cures diseases.  But can we not also just enjoy research for the sake of research?  Imagine all of human knowledge as a painting.  We assume that we can see the whole painting, but instead what we see are pixels.  These pixels are published findings, and each of them is fairly insignificant on its own.  What's important is its contribution to the larger picture.  When the media picks up on a story, it's easy for people to mistake individual pixels for the larger picture or even brush stroke within the painting.  And so people dismiss some findings as pointless because it doesn't fit within their idea of what that part of the painting should look like.  The danger here is that once we start dismissing some science and some knowledge that we find pointless, it justifies the dismissal (e.g. by climate change deniers and politicians) of all science and knowledge.  Especially when public dismissal of "pointless" research is based on irresponsible media coverage:

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Public opinion drives policy, and policy decides who gets to have the very limited scientific research funding that is available.  Right now we are at the brink of the next mass extinction.  As human populations have increased, invertebrate populations (anything from insects to non-fishy sea creatures) have almost halved.  There are so many gaps in our knowledge of human-caused "defaunation", that it severely limits our ability to make predictions on its impact.  There are many gaps in all human knowledge, and there will continue to be as long the public continues to judge the significance of research findings based solely on whether or not it will make them thinner or healthier.

In some fields, the focus on practical research poses a threat to theoretical and conceptual research, which by the way is fundamental to practical research.  It forces researchers to produce at all costs, sometimes faster than they would like, and it takes the focus away from projects that don't fit the grant application deadlines.  I would even go as far as saying that the focus on "impactful" research, and the publish-or-perish mentality, is behind the rash of very public retractions we've been seeing.  This flawed funding policy means we are producing bad science just because there's an emphasis on fast production if you want to keep your lab.  Academic research was never intended to make money, it has always been about knowledge, and so we can't apply the same market thinking to academic research that we do to the private sector.

Think about all of the important and practical information we have today - vaccines, antibiotics, diagnostic tools, etc.  All of these things were not instantaneous discoveries, they were developed by building on decades of other research, some that may have seemed pointless at the time.  A perfect example is the discovery of the structure of DNA.  Watson and Crick did not come up with that on their own, instead, they gathered and put together other researchers' fragments of information.  Good science is always about standing on the shoulders of giants.  And that means that we have to fund research that the general public finds "pointless".

Anyway, on a less serious note, let's celebrate some "pointless" research. 

My new favorite organization is Improbable Research, which celebrates research findings that people think might be pointless, but that are really important for the advancement of science and knowledge.  Their motto is "research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK", and they honor achievements in weird research with their Ig Nobel awards.  2006 winners of the award include a scientist who found a unique way to cure hiccups, another who found that female mosquitoes (who spread malaria) are attracted to stinky feet, and another who invented a "teenager repellent" (for which store owners, I'm sure, are very happy).  Other past winners have identified the enzyme in onions that make you cry, how to procrastinate more efficiently, and that dung beetles orient themselves using the milky way (which blows my mind)!  These may not seem like significant discoveries because they may not contribute to human well-being, but neither do cat videos and no one is complaining about those on the internet.

Here are several links to "pointless" research, just for the sake of advancing human knowledge:
Why woodpeckers don't get headaches (open access - and really interesting!) Sidebar: my dad laughed when I told him about this study, but it turns out it's been very useful in designing bike helmets!
Swearing as a response to pain
Having a beard in a microbiology lab isn't very sanitary
Which is more likely to crack a skull - a full or empty beer bottle?
Urban frogs use drains as megaphones for mating calls
The side-effects of sword swallowing
And how far can penguins defecate?

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