Politicians sometimes deride research based on the what they perceive as being “silly” titles of federal funded grants. If they spot a title that deals with “games”, for example, they may assume it deals with some sort of amusement of little value to society, instead of a deep, powerful branch of mathematics that describes the behavior of competing rational agents with much relevance to voting, economics, cooperation, and so on. Animal rights activists also enjoy the hobby. The latest example is IDA’s list of “ridiculous research” ,whose claims were sadly repeated by far too many news journalists who were clearly too lazy check if they were accurate. There were some honorable exceptions, notably an excellent editorial entitled “When the facts ruin a good spin” in the Times Union, which discusses a project on the role of music as a conditioning stimulus for drug use ends with a statement with which we heartily agree:
What’s “ridiculous,” to borrow the press release’s language, is that we fall for it, over and over, egged on by politicians eager to score easy points. And what’s “wasteful” is the time and energy that could be so much better spent on something other than a cheap shot.”
Back in 1976 the House Committee on Appropriations asked the National Science Foundation “Why does the Foundation persist in supporting research whose results have no apparent value to the American people?“ The NSF responded in part that:
Basic research seeks an understanding of the laws of nature without initial regard for specific utilitarian value. Ultimately, however, it is of the most important practical significance, because in a broad sense it is the foundation upon which rests all technological development. Applied research builds on the results of basic research, seeking detailed information about a specific situation whose general laws have been discovered by basic research. The final step toward utilization of research-development is the systematic application of knowledge to the design of end products. [...]
As we increase our knowledge of nature and mankind, in order to adjust nature to our survival, safety, comfort and convenience, we must depend upon scientific research to clarify the relationships of many, many things. Thus, we study atoms, even though they will never be seen by an unaided human eye. We study stars too faint to be seen without a telescope and with wavelengths which can only be detected with radio receivers or photographic plates. To understand geology, we must look at geologic formations and processes in many parts of the world where different conditions have existed. To understand more about the phenomena of life, we must study the behavior of viruses, single cells, plants, and animals of many species.
A book was compiled covering various areas of research with Isaac Asimov writing an essay defending the value of basic research.
Thus, it was with some surprise and delight that we read in the news about Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn) understanding the value of basic research. The Washington Post reports that:
On Wednesday afternoon, Cooper rose to the defense of taxpayer-funded research into dog urine, guinea pig eardrums and, yes, the reproductive habits of the parasitic flies known as screwworms–all federally supported studies that have inspired major scientific breakthroughs.
Together with two colleagues he created the Annual Golden Goose Awards to honor federally funded research “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.”
The article goes on to describe how research on dog urine led to an understanding of the effects of hormones on the human kidney, how studies in the guinea pig led to a treatment for hearing loss in infants, and how studies on the screwworm led to the effective control of the a deadly parasite that targets cattle. All these provide additional examples refuting the notion that learning about life processes from animals cannot yield knowledge applicable to human health.
The Golden Goose Award has the backing of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association of American Universities (who in 2011 published a series of “Scientific Inquirer” articles skewering dubious politically-motivated attacks on basic science) and the Progressive Policy Institute, who are to be congratulated for this excellent initiative to highlight the importance of basic research.
At the press conference to launch the award Rep. Robert Dold told reporters that “When we invest in science, we also invest in jobs. Research and development is a key part to any healthy economy,” while Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn.) added “It’s critical, and the federal government has an important role to play,” who went on to describe how injecting horses with snake venom might “seem peculiar” but led to the discovery of the first anti-venom.
Taking us, once again, to the concluding words of Asimov’s essay:
Unless we continue with science and gather knowledge, whether or not it seems useful on the spot, we will be buried under our problems and find no way out. Today’s science is tomorrow’s solution — and tomorrow’s problems , too — and, most of all, it is mankind’s greatest adventure, now and forever.