science myopic misunderstandings basic research science writing

Unsound judgments on sound science: myopic misunderstandings of basic research

Every scientist has experienced it. When they tell someone that they have or are completing a PhD in biomedical sciences, often the first words out of the listener’s mouth are, “That’s so cool! You should study this disease that my relative has.” It doesn’t matter what the disease is – sometimes it’s cancer, sometimes ALS, sometimes Alzheimer’s – but it is likely to be unrelated to whatever it is the scientist studies. As soon as they explain what their research is about, they can see the person’s eyes glaze over while hearing what the scientist says and realizing that it seems irrelevant to their interests.

To be fair, not every person reacts in this manner, but it happens often enough that it’s a familiar tune for most of us scientists. It can be a challenge to explain to the general population why the basic science research you do is relevant to them, or why it is worth pursuing at all. It is not for nothing that Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona puts out a yearly “wastebook,” a compilation of all the research that he believes is pointless and in some way wastes government money, whether it is through grant funding or tax breaks. Senator Flake designs his wastebook to be flashy and have catchy headlines – for example, the 2015 wastebook was titled “The Farce Awakens”, alluding to the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while this year’s title, PORKémonGO, references the popular smartphone game PokémonGO – and consists of a list of descriptions (often bastardizations or blatant misrepresentations) of research projects and the amount of money that was allotted to each project.

Reading the wastebook alone might lead one of Senator Flake’s constituents to agree that the included projects are truly a waste of the taxpayers’ money. In fact, many websites feature it as evidence that the government is out of line with its spending, leading to angry commenters asking, “why is NASA wasting money setting up fake missions to Mars – in Hawaii? Why did the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) bother setting up the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), when the entries turned out to be complete failures? Why would the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry waste a portion of its government-allocated money setting up an exhibit where participants build gingerbread houses?”

The language of the report is purposely inflammatory, often downplays or outright ignores the broader impact of the studies, and is overall misinformed as to how and how much money is allocated per project. NASA’s Hawaii project aims to observe how humans might interact in confinement in Mars over the length of a months-long mission. Think about it the other way around- would it make sense to spend the time and money developing the technology to send humans to Mars, only to realize that the first mission failed because of the unforeseen consequences of confining individuals in small spaces over long periods of time? The robots in the DRC “kept falling over, and moved at the speed of molasses,” but advancements in any field cannot happen without trial and error; did Senator Flake expect that the challenge would result in a host of streamlined, perfectly coordinated robots? Scientific research and education involve our attempts to investigate the unknown; we couldn’t expect it to work the same way as assembling an IKEA bookshelf. Building a gingerbread house might sound like inane “research” for the government to fund, but considering that the purpose of museums is to be educational, building gingerbread houses is a fantastic way to explain the “innovation, engineering, and food science aspects of assembling elaborate gingerbread sculptures” to the public.

In response, agencies like the National Science Foundation have put out statements defending their choices to fund research featured in the wastebook. All the NSF-funded research, they argue, is “reviewed by science and engineering experts well-versed in their particular discipline or field of expertise.” And although it may then seem that those science and engineering experts are the ones out of touch with reality for funding these grants, the grant review process itself is designed to fund only the most thought-out ideas with the highest potential of moving their respective fields forward: each grant proposal is evaluated by at least three independent reviewers who are unaffiliated either to the NSF or the institution where the research proponents work.

In the eyes of the NSF and other grant-funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health, all the funded research is meritorious, and the agencies themselves do not actually benefit from funding it. Advancements in science and engineering would not be possible if we neglected basic science research. If only applied science research projects were funded, we would run headlong into roadblocks that we would be unable to bypass; for example, medicines might fail because we lack understanding of how molecular pathways work. Alternatively, we might miss chance opportunities from making unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated research; for instance, research into the immune system of bacteria, CRISPR, led to the ingenious idea of using that very system as a new tool for genomic engineering. CRISPR is now employed throughout the realm of biology and has the potential to one day lead to treatments to erase genetic diseases at the source: the DNA.

In addition, the wastebooks often mistake the cost of a specific project with the total funding allocated towards multi-year grants, or the quoted costs are misrepresented or just plainly wrong. The resulting image that the wastebook conveys is one of expensive failed experiments, without adequately explaining to taxpayers the value of basic research. As Senator Flake can attest, scientific concepts can sometimes be difficult to understand, but perhaps if we allowed him to build a gingerbread house, he might realize that there is more to these projects than a simple sugarcoat over terrible ideas.

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