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9.2.12

Basic science is about creating opportunities

Did you know that US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor runs a website called "YouCut" that encourages citizens to submit "questionable" NSF grants that should lose their funding?

Step One: Look for Questionable Grants
Click here to open the National Science Foundation website. In the "Search Award For" field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.

First, check out those suggested key words. "Social norms", "culture", "success"...? Do these terms hold some secret, coded meaning among the anti-science crowd that I just don't get?

What's wrong with this? What's wrong with cutting funding to projects such as "shrimp walking on a tiny treadmill" and "a robot folding laundry"? Saving taxpayer money is a good thing, and I genuinely respect efforts to do so.

But these "frivolous" projects don't exist in a vacuum.

You can't legislate innovation and you can't democratize a breakthrough. You can, however, create a system that maximizes the probability that a breakthrough can occur.

We scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. The more research you fund, the more giants we get, and the pyramid of giants standing on giants grows ever larger. (Okay, that metaphor broke down at the end there...)


Scicurious did a good takedown of one of Tom Coburn's "Wastebook" listed projects over on the Scientific American blogs, but I want to compile a whole list of projects.

Here is my list of "really stupid, frivolous academic pursuits" that have lead to major scientific breakthroughs. If you know of any more, I'd love to hear about them. I'd like to compile a list to use as ammunition in the future, because Cantor certainly isn't the first--nor will he be the last--federal politician to play this game.

• Studying monkey social behaviors and eating habits lead to insights into HIV (Radiolab: Patient Zero)
• Research into how algae move toward light paved the way for optogenetics: using light to control brain cells (Nature 2010 Method of the Year).
• Black hole research gave us WiFi (ICRAR award)
• Optometry informs architecture and saved lives on 9/11 (APA Monitor)
• Certain groups HATE SETI, but SETI's development of cloud-computing service SETI@HOME paved the way for citizen science and recent breakthroughs in protein folding (Popular Science)
• Astronomers provide insights into medical imaging (TEDxBoston: Michell Borkin)
• Basic physics experiments and the Fibonacci sequence help us understand plant growth and neuron development:


Here's a link to a Google Doc for these projects! Please feel free to add more, and remember to reference it in the future.

What I love about these is that so many started from canonical "wasteful spending" types of "pointless" research: astronomy and black holes, studying algae, SETI, etc.

The ideas spawned from these basic projects could never have been anticipated. We don't do the research that will lead to the best immediate applications, we do the research that is interesting because it is interesting. The possibility for a breakthrough can't exist if we stop supporting basic research because it "feels" silly.

Science shouldn't be seen as a zero-sum game.

(h/t to Ecogirl & Cosmoboy's blog for the astronomy stuff!)