“Oddball” Basic Science versus Applied Science

Now is not the time for waste, especially with the dismal economic situation. We really should not be reaching for our wallets. However, politicians and the public alike appear to be blaming the scientific community for squandering the nation’s budget with “questionable, odd-ball” research. The widely brought-up examples on studies of duck genitalia, snail sex, robotic squirrels, and exercising shrimp hardly seem applicable and beneficial to society and are viewed as the products of wasteful government spending. However, these types of studies are shown to have beneficial, practical findings to society. To accurately judge the merits of funding these kinds of projects, it helps to analyze the implications of oddball science and how much of the budget it really uses.

To clarify, research is classified into two different fields: basic and applied research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) delineates basic research as a science to “gain more complete understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts, without specific applications toward processes or products in mind,” while applied science is aimed at “knowledge necessary for determining the means by which a recognized need may be met” [1]. In our current economic situation, applied science may seem more preferable to basic science because findings in applied science often have direct functions. Many of the “questionable” studies are classified as basic science and are under scrutiny in terms of their purpose in this time of economic ambiguity. Patricia Brennan, the overseer of the study on duck penises, believes that this kind of “oddball” science must be supported and that “reducing our ability to creatively examine unique biological phenomena will ultimately harm not only education and health but also the ability to innovate—a major driver of the global economy” [2].

Human innovations are in fact frequently not the result of meticulous research on socially pertinent topics, but instead arise from unexpected research. The most successful case of oddball science is the discovery of Taq polymerase, the main enzyme involved in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique that revolutionized DNA research [2]. The enzyme was discovered through the study of extreme thermophiles living in the thermal vents of Yellowstone National Park [3]. Although many of the oddball studies have not produced results as revolutionary as that of Taq polymerase, they do have relevant purposes. The shrimp on the treadmill study has recently been mentioned as a prime example of prodigal government spending, but Lou Burnett, a biologist involved in the study, explains, “[the] money actually went to a lot of different research that he and his colleagues did on this economically important seafood species. The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality” [4]. In actuality, the study served an importance to the Gulf economy, especially in the aftermath of the BP oil spill and the effects of that event on the seafood industry.

Indeed, the list of surprisingly beneficial oddball experiments does not end there. The long term study on gecko feet and their ability to walk up walls has led to the invention of “Geckskin, an adhesive that can attach a 700-lb. weight to a smooth surface on an index-card-sized pad” [5]. Biologists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst asserted that, “experts have identified more than 2,000 instances of technology inspired by evolutionary innovations, including highly efficient solar panels, insulated glass and body armor inspired by mantis shrimp appendages” [5]. Yet, social media still criticizes these studies to produce headlines and take the studies out of context. In fact, the criticisms scientists receive for their questionable studies are not entirely justified. Brennan’s funding for her study was a mere 0.0000004 percent of the total government spending in 2009 [6]. The NSF received $5.9 billion for all its research this year [6]. In 2009, government spending totaled a staggering $3.1 trillion [7]. The percentage of government spending that was allocated to research was less than one-fifth of a percent [7]. Consequently scientific grants do not constitute a large part of wasteful spending, especially when it does not comprise a large part of the budget in the first place.

Oddball science has been criticized for wasting government’s money. However, funding for basic science only comprises an infinitesimal part of government spending. Moreover, it has actually produced significant findings, which have not only benefitted the scientific community, but the society as a whole. Under the current economic turmoil, the cutting back on funding in basic research or research in general may be inevitable. Nonetheless, the merits of basic science should hopefully prevent funding from being cut permanently, regardless of the economic circumstances. Basic science research should be supported as a significant contributor to human innovation and society.

References:

[1] Joseph V. Kennedy, “The Sources and Uses of U.S. Science Funding,” The New Atlantis, no. 36 (2012): 3-22, http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-sources-and-uses-of-us-science-funding (accessed March 11, 2014)

[2] Brennan, Patricia, Duncan Irschick, and Norman Johnson, “Oddball Science: Why Studies of Unusual Evolutionary Phenomena Are Crucial,” BioScience, 3 (2014): 178-179, http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/3/178 (accessed March 11, 2014).

[3] Brock, Thomas D. “The Value of Basic Research: Discovery of 117termus aquaticus and Other Extreme Thermophiles.” Genetics, no. 4 (1997): 1207-1210. http://www.genetics.org/content/146/4/1207.full.pdf html?sid=52785d4c-ed90-418c-bab9-cee7c10c788a (accessed March 15, 2014).

[4] Greenfieldboyce, Nell, “‘Shrimp On A Treadmill’: The Politics Of Silly Studies.” NPR, , sec. Science, August 23, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/08/23/139852035/shrimp-on-a-treadmill-the-politics-of-silly-studies (accessed March 11, 2014).

[5] University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “‘Oddball science’ has proven worth, biologists say.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140227125510.htm (accessed March 10, 2014).

[6] Fahrenthold, David A. “Private parts and public funding: A researcher champions oddball science.” The Washington Post, April 8, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/private-parts-and-public-funding-a-researcher-champions-oddball-science/2013/04/08/c6b6b6b6-9d2a-11e2-94d6-bf62983d455b_story.html (accessed March 9, 2014).

[7] U.S. Government Printing Office, Summary Titles, 2009, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BUDGET-2009-BUD/pdf/BUDGET-2009-BUD-31.pdf (accessed March 15, 2014).

Image References:

[1] One for the Road, January 7, 2009. B.C. Tørrissen. Available from: http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html

 

Michaela Lee is a sophomore in Cornell University majoring in Biological Sciences. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.