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Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Do We Do Science?

Lately there's been a flurry of activity in the American press about the value (or lack of value) of science. There have also been attempts by various organizations to enhance science education.1 Most defenders of science and science education will eventually end up trying to explain how science directly benefits the economy, usually in the form of return on investment. In other words, we need to do science because eventually the result will be used by somebody to make a profit.

I posted an example of this a few days ago [Zack Kopplin Defends Science].

I think this is a dangerous strategy. There are several ways of responding to the "what's in it for me" question without bringing up indirect economic benefit. These strategies are common when defending public support for the arts, for example. They're also used when defending research in the humanities.

Phill Plait of Bad Astronomy hits the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned [Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Member Gets Schooled on Science Funding]. His defense of science should be the primary talking point whenever anyone questions the value of learning about the natural world. Here's what Phil Plait says in response to Zack Kopplin's "return on investment" defense of science when Stephen Moore asks why the government is funding research on sex in snails.
How’s that for return on investment?

And that’s just a pedestrian, look-at-what’s-directly-in-front-of-you kind of thinking. We research the Universe around us because we are curious, inquisitive, intelligent animals. We don’t know what snail mating habits might teach us. That’s why we study it. Maybe it’ll lead into insight on how animals behave, or a new chemical secreted during the process, or to insight on the environment where snails live. Maybe none of that.

But that’s not the damn point. We study science because we want to learn about the real world. If we wanted to stick our heads in the sand, as people like Moore would have us do, he wouldn’t even have the venue he has to say ridiculous things like he just did.

Science is about exploration and discovery, and making sure we don’t fool ourselves. It’s among the noblest of all human endeavors, and something we should be both pursuing to our fullest abilities as well as defending from those who would drag it down.
Right on, Phil! Science leads to knowledge and knowledge is always better than ignorance. That's reason enough to fund science research and reason enough to support science education.

As sure as night follows day, there are going to be comments from people who advocate the "return on investment" strategy for defending science research. The argument frequently boils down to the fact that most politicians don't care about knowledge. All they want to see is how science can help business or improve the health and physical well-being of our citizens. Because these politicians are ignorant of the real value of knowledge, we must cow-tow to their ignorance and defend science on their turf.

That's what's happening in Canada with our Conservative government. In my field (biochemistry & molecular biology), many of my colleagues think we have to justify our research by showing how it will improve health. The current buzzword is "translational research." If you don't engage in the kind of research that Conservatives want, then you won't get funded.

Unfortunately, that may be true in today's climate. That doesn't mean we have to fool ourselves into thinking that that "translational research" be our primary goal. We recognize that the ignorance of our Conservative government is a problem, not a virtue. It's a problem that has to be fixed ... in the long term. Our goal should be to educate the next generation of politicians so we don't have to be embarrassed by them in the future. Let's at least have some people like Phil Plait who will speak out for basic curiosity-motivated research. We'll never succeed in convincing politicians and the general public of the value of knowledge if we don't even try.

Let's make sure we start with our students. Let's at least ensure that when we have them in our clutches as undergraduates we make sure that they understand science and the importance of knowledge. If we don't do that then we have nobody to blame but ourselves when future societies demand that science generate a return on investment.

Looking at my own university, it's obvious that we are not doing a very good job in our courses. I fear for the future of science.

1. In the USA "science" often gets lumped in with "technology," "engineering," and "mathematics"(=STEM) as though they had the same goals.


Georgi Marinov said...

The goal of science is to better understand the world around us. This is much bigger than growing the economy; it has had the effect of helping grow the economy historically, but the improved understanding of the world around us that science has achieved over the years has also made it abundantly clear that we should not be growing the economy or we will cause a global ecological catastrophe as due to the most fundamental laws of nature (which politicians and mainstream economists seem to have never bothered to learn anything about), you cannot have have infinite growth in a finite system.

So the argument "Research is useful because it stimulates the economy" is not only yet essentially another manifestation of the pervasive anti-intellectualism of our society, but is also wrong in other even more serious ways.

Konrad said...

Even the claim that "knowledge is always better than ignorance" is not that widely accepted. At least if it means spending money to generate the knowledge.

What needs to be recognized in this debate is that "why should we do science?" and "why should we spend public money on science?" are two very different questions. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is a fine answer to the first question, but (sadly) fails to convince the relevant parties when it comes to the second question - this is clear when one looks at how poorly the arts and humanities (who are forced to rely on this answer alone) are funded. The reality is that we are funded for reasons that are very different from the reason we do science.

Unknown said...

Is the conservative Canadian government at fault in the "Cure for Cancer/HIV/MS/Parkinson's"-focussed science funding environment? I'm a relatively new graduate student in the life sciences in Canada, and all around me I see other students receiving funding from many different sources, largely because they embellished their grant applications with tenacious (at best) links to disease research.

I think the problem is the media emphasis on finding "the next big cure". Perhaps politicians in charge of making decisions pay too much attention to these headlines, I don't know.

Funding organizations want to increase their prestige and impact, and try to fund projects that follow these preconceived notions of disease research. I think the solution is not to blame the current incarnation of the Government but to educate the people in charge of funding new research on the value of science research in general. Billions have been spent on "cancer research", but the main problem is that cancer is a description of a whole host of cell cycle diseases that share some common properties.

I think it's a shame that a lot of fascinating research goes unfunded because so many researchers speculate in their grant application that "this may provide important insights into [insert disease du jour here]". Did Fleming fund his research by saying that "by studying various moulds we can possibly find a cure for deadly bacterial diseases"? Of course not. I look forward to the next discovery comparable to that of penicillin, but I really doubt it will come from a project whose pre-stated goal is to make that discovery.

Unknown said...

Yes, science should be curiosity driven, but we should also tell people that scientists are not indiscriminately curious. We need to tell people that part of being a good scientist is knowing how to pick important problems.

We don't get funded to go out and study snail sex or yeast sex just because we're curious about some niche phenomenon; we get funded (ideally) because we've been able to make a good case that what we learn will have big implications for our understanding of the universe.

If someone asks you why you study snail sex, you don't just say 'because I'm curious', you say 'because the results will totally change how we understand the evolution of sex.'

Robert Byers said...

There is a issue about giving hard working people's money to people to study snail sex and get paid for it.
They can study on their own time.
To justify using the peoples money there must be good reason for the research.
nor just to give cozy jobs that don't break a sweat.
when I read geomorphology papers from north Asian countries ALWAYS they must stress why their research matters to the bigger society that pays for it. The must justify their work.
This might indeed retard advancement but they keep up in a general way I think.

The people don't need to be educated on the value of "science' to our nations.
its about value for the buck when the buck comes from someone not getting the easy life of a "scientist"
I'm confident people are more interested and knowledgable about science today then any period in history.

The hostility and censorship against creationism in some subjects surely depresses interest .
Yet in time this will change.
There's no problem with the public interest in science.
Lets remember about the origin of and sharing of the wealth.

Georgi Marinov said...

You are making exactly the same anti-science point that the original post discussed. And it's not even a good point - a good portion of the toolkit of modern molecular biology has been derived from the study of obscure organisms nobody would ever care about if they were told "Let's study the biology of thermophilic bacteria" or "We're really curious about nematode development". Not to mention that normalized for how much has been spent on model organisms compared to how much has been spent on translation research with "direct clinical relevance", the former has produced maybe some two orders of magnitude more basic biological knowledge (on which then clinical research has built upon) then the latter.

People need to be educated on the value of science to humanity as a whole. Looking at science through the prism of its "value to our nations" is shortsighted, stupid, and ultimately self-destructive.

Finally, I would very much like to know what the "easy life of a scientist" is like - spending a decade and a half working 14-16 hours a day in the name of the small chance you might get tenure, then once you get it, working even longer hours for the rest of your life mostly begging various institutions for money so that you can keep your lab funded does not strike me as an easy life...

Unknown said...

There is absolutely no part of science research that could be described as "cozy jobs that don't break a sweat" (sic). What do you think the day-to-day life of a scientist involved in any subject, including research into snail sexual behaviour, would look like? I can assure you it does not just consist of "today I watched two snails have sex then I went out to the pub". Have you ever talked to a research scientist? Or visited a science laboratory?

Also, what censorship against creationism? Science absolutely does not work via censorship, it works by peer review. (and post-publication review by scientists across the whole world) If creationist researchers cannot get their "research" published it's because it doesn't contribute to science, not because there's some sort of nefarious organization making sure that all science agrees with the status quo. Science is science. An honest scientist makes no assumptions about the results of his or her research and instead relies on evidence. If creationists can formulate a theoretical framework that best describes what we observe around us in biogeography, genetics and bioinformatics, paleontology, immunology, and phylogenetics, then that theoretical framework will supplant the existing ideas about natural selection, genetic drift, sexual selection, etc. But they can't, and that's why they aren't published.

I guarantee you that if you asked any randomly-selected life science researcher what their reaction would be if they found clear, unambiguous evidence that the theory of evolution by natural selection (or literally any accepted scientific theory) was completely wrong, they would scream for joy, publish their first-author paper in Nature, and enjoy a lifetime of limitless funding money, fame, book royalties, and cushy jobs consulting. The only people arguing that scientists are censoring creationists are either creationists who are bitter at their lack of progress, or laypersons who couldn't state a definition for the word "evolution" if their careers depended on it.

andyboerger said...

"... the improved understanding of the world around us that science has achieved over the years has also made it abundantly clear that we should not be growing the economy or we will cause a global ecological catastrophe as due to the most fundamental laws of nature..."

Bravo, Georgi!

jcc said...

An interesting use of the phrase “in our clutches.” A Freudian slip that betrays Moran’s actual intentions. Perhaps a translation of the Alinskyism is needed for those of you in Rio Linda:

Let's at least ensure that when we have indoctrinated the students in our clutches in anti-capitalism and other far-left propaganda, we make sure that they understand how to politicize the junk science we “teach” them to best serve our tree-hugging, socialist agenda.

Anonymous said...

That was Larry's sense of humor. While your comment was plain stupidity.

SRM said...

Oh, look!. Someone visits a website devoted to learning and science.

Running out of oxygen in the conservative echo chamber perhaps? WorldNutDaily off-line temporarily? Hey, aren't there some polls that need unskewing somewhere?


Diogenes said...

This WND fascist just defined "science" as "left wing propaganda". Wow- what a compliment to left-wingers. Logically that means right wing propaganda is anti-science. Which we knew already, but thanks for clarifying.

As for his accusation of "junk science", that phrase was invented about the 80's by tobacco companies to describe science that showed smoking causes cancer, a phrase test-marketed before being released by right wing politicians. An oldie but a goodie.

As for the phrase "Saul Alinskyism", this is more recent: Fox News wanted to accuse Obama of other things besides Marxism, so they dug up a Jewish sounding name belonging to an obscure prof who allegedly hypnotized Obama into a spear chuckin Mao Mao Mandinka Black Panther beret wearing blonde girl-raping Huey Newton oversexed revolutionary threat to corporate pollitionism and white maidens' virginity. This phrase identifies our interlocutor as a watcher of Fox News; therefore old, white, and bitter.

As for "tree-hugging", I sure as fuck hope so; but the phrase itself is so much from the era of skinny ties, abundant coke, Iran Contra and Thompson Twins. This phrase identifies our interlocutor as in his 60's or above.

It is ironic that our sexagenarian Anders Breivik-style crusader for pollutionism should write this as Exxon bleeds tar sand all over Arkansas and arrests anyone who tries to snap a photo of their felonies, a state of affairs that conservatives call freedom and justice.

Diogenes said...

SRM makes a good point. How'd those "polls unskewed" work out for you? You sure corrected liberal media bias with your conservative "unskewing". Now remind me who won the election again...

SRM said...

Not sure when they took it down exactly, but up until recent years FoxNews website actually had a clickable sidebar titled Junk Science. Which of course is the same thing as real science except that it reaches conclusions that do not jive with right-wing opinion, and therefore are wrong.

Diogenes said...

What kind of asshole describes the work of scientists as "cozy jobs that don't break a sweat."

My scientist wife comes home from the lab at 8:30-9pm every night. Often, by the time she gets home our son is asleep already. Meanwhile Byers is probably retired and does nothing but monitor internet threads all day long so he can tell people science jobs are cushy and free money. Fuck you.

Byers, like most creationists, has clearly never met a scientist in his life and would not know a scientist if one bit him on the ankle.

Byers thinks he knows what goes on in the laboratories he has never entered.

Typical creationist science hatred.

jcc said...


Oh, look!. Someone visits a website devoted to learning and science.

I’ve been visiting this website for over 3 years now, and the one thing it most assuredly is not is “devoted to learning and science”—it's more like an electronic crack house for leftest talking-points, demagoguery and ad hominem attacks.

up until recent years FoxNews website actually had a clickable sidebar titled Junk Science.

Oh look! A liberal who actually pulls his head out of the HuffPo/Daily Kos/Mother Jones self-gratification sand and attempts to sample other worldviews. I'm impressed! There may be hope for this one. One word of caution though, I've heard of liberal's heads exploding from consuming too much reality in one sitting.

jcc said...


This phrase identifies our interlocutor as in his 60's or above.

Now that I’ve finally stopped belly-laughing… Dude, seriously, get a life. You write like you really do live in a barrel. Waving your arms with your sophomoric little analysis is no way to impress chicks (or whatever you’re trying to) on a bio-geek blog.

Diogenes said...


"I've heard of liberal's heads exploding from consuming too much reality in one sitting. "

By "reality" our interlocutor refers to Fox News. I was watching when Karl Rove called Ohio for Mitt Romney. This after 6 months of their sophisticated non-junk science of them dismissing polls as unreliable because math has a well-known liberal bias, and them insisting their gut feelings that Obama would lose were true reality. Fuck math. Fuck evidence!

So you're right, what Fox calls reality makes our heads explode.

Robert Byers said...

I'm not saying all researchers have cozy jobs but some do and studying snail sex is suggestive.
They are getting to do with other peoples money obscure things that don't matter and don't require heavy lifting.
Its the right of the people and nation to judge whats worthwhile.
I'm sure most research money accomplished nothing in Canada because there was not enough watching who gets what to do what.
Money for the right reasons and right people as the Canadian people and those trusted decide.

SRM said...

Oh look! A liberal who actually pulls his head out of the HuffPo/Daily Kos/Mother Jones self-gratification sand and attempts to sample other worldviews. I'm impressed! There may be hope for this one. One word of caution though, I've heard of liberal's heads exploding from consuming too much reality in one sitting.

Ha, ha. Rarely look at HuffPo, never read Daily Kos or Mother Jones. But I do frequent Free Republic, WND, and even watch Fox and Friends in the morning when I need my fill of stupid.

Are you enjoying your shrinking world JCC?
Oh, damn, is that another liberal myth!? hahahahaha

Diogenes said...

Byers: "I'm not saying all researchers have cozy jobs but some do"

How the fuck would YOU know? Fuck you. You've never been in a lab. Go fuck yourself. YOUR job is cushy.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he works in a lab doing shit of assholes like you... Did it ever occur to your narrow brain or whatever you have left of it?

Steve said...

On the other hand, ignorance is bliss.

So do your discovering on your own dime.

If you want me (taxpayer) to drop you a dime (so you can fascinate yourself watching tadpoles in a beaker), then I want to know what's in it more me - a dime + a penny obviously.

That's humanity in the raw.

Phil's take is naive; the real world demands that penny.

Diogenes said...

Sure! And when muggers attack you, tell the cops to buy guns on their own dime, "taxpayer"!

Tell firemen to buy ladders on their own dime.

Tell schoolteachers to buy kids' textbooks on their own dime.

Tell soldiers to buy artillery on their own dime.

Or alternatively, just wear a T-shirt with the word "Asshole" and an arrow pointing up.