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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!)


  1. "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."
    Bradley Voytek

    Straight into my quote file with that, and straight onto a slide for the creative thinking class I'm teaching in 90 minutes. Yes. YES.

  2. Anonymous16:28

    Business, individual, foundations, etc are free to do their own research and do so. They are after all spending their own money, placing their own skin in the game. Taking from on group - taxes - to fund the research desires of another, is putting someone else's skin in the game by force of government. Funds acquired from individuals against their will, ether by force or government confiscation is always theft. And to add fule to the fire, much of this "public" funded research is published without public access and made available only at great ADDITIONAL expense. If the research has merit, actual people will be willing to put their own skin in the game; their free choice and the best allocation of their own resources.

  3. @Iccarson: thanks! Hope the class went well :)

    @Anonymous: well here we have a basic ideological difference, and no amount of internet arguing is going to change that. I personally believe that not all science can, nor should, be motivated by capitalism. You clearly do not. I personally believe that the societal benefits gained through tax-subsidized research are worth the costs.

    As I outlined in the post, the benefits of research are not always clear from the beginning. No sane company would fund research into how green algae moves toward light. Yet the findings from such basic research have lead to one of the biggest breakthrough technologies in neuroscience in decades: a technology that will no doubt spin up dozens of new companies taking advantage of this technology. This is but one example.

    But again, I don't think these arguments will convince you. Nor do I necessarily want to. I'm glad you give such a shit because it provides a nice balance to my opinion versus those of Cantor/Coburn.

  4. I guess this probably wouldn't really qualify as frivolous, but one of my favorite examples of basic science leading to a major breakthrough that has pretty much revolutionized medicine (not to mention science), was Isidor Rabi's discovery of NMR. My understanding is that he was looking at very basic properties of RF absorption for different molecule (or something, I don't know, I am not a physicist.... protons.) Bottom line is his investigation of very basic physics properties, led to NMR, which is of course the same thing as MRI, which helps everyone!

  5. Here is more:

    "In many ways, this is a book about hindsight. Pythagoras could not have imagined the uses to which his equation would be put (if, indeed, he ever came up with the equation himself in the first place). The same applies to almost all of the equations in this book. They were studied/discovered/developed by mathematicians and mathematical physicists who were investigating subjects that fascinated them deeply, not because they imagined that two hundred years later the work would lead to electric light bulbs or GPS or the internet, but rather because they were genuinely curious."

    via 17 Equations that changed the world

    Also, if people like Benoît B. Mandelbrot would have never decided to research Fractals then many modern movies wouldn't be possible, as they rely on fractal landscape algorithms. Yet, at the time Benoît B. Mandelbrot conducted his research it was not foreseeable that his work would have any real-world applications.

  6. Here's my one little problem with this:

    You're trying to justify curiosity-driven research by its utility alone.

    Now, I appreciate those unexpected spin-offs and practical applications. But as much as you can point to cases where basic research had major practical applications, we know that there's a lot that remains purely academic.

    And it's not why many scientists do science. Richard Feynman said it about physics, but it's true of all sciences: "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

    And I don't think it's why people support science. People will support science just because it's cool, and it enlivens and informs their minds. A lot of people have fun learning new things and gaining a better understanding of the way the world works.

    I don’t know why we always try to justify science by utilitarian bookkeeping and number crunching (which is kind of dull), when people will support us because they are interested in the universe (which is awesome).

  7. @Alexander: that's amazing! I had no idea that movies relied on fractal algorithms! Thanks for pointing this stuff out to me.

  8. @Zen: you're totally right! I wasn't trying to convey that this was the *only* justification for research, just that the rationale behind the whole "this sounds silly, we shouldn't fund it" way of thinking about things is misguided and short-sighted.

    I genuinely don't think people realize how many cool findings originated from "strange sounding"/"frivolous" research.

    The reasons why *I* enjoy doing science aren't the things that will get me grants:


  9. @Bradley: For more check out this video.

  10. Anonymous18:21

    While I largely agree, we must also recognize that we scientists, forming study sections, often fund research that we think is cool (to us), but if we were really pressed we could not justify. That doesn't mean that it won't turn out to be really important, but given finite budget constraints, we could probably do a better job with the allocation of funding. And I say this as a scientist who might get less money under a more rational funding arrangement.

    Obviously allocating 100% of NIH funds towards large, named illnesses, as the lay-person might be inclined to do, would be a huge mistake. There has to be a wide distribution of research $ to capture the value from a wide range of ideas, and the marginal funded Alzheimer's researcher is probably little to nothing of value, anyway.
    But if the justification of funding for science is largely based on positive externalities and provision of public goods that coordination failure prevents from occurring otherwise, then we should at least think about how we might achieve those ends, and realize that sometimes what we think interesting really is quite pointless.

  11. Fleming wanted to figure out why bacteria were not growing in dirty petri dishes, and discovered penicillin. Mendel wanted to know more about breeding sweet peas, and out came the modern evolutionary synthesis and lots more.

    The real problem is asking people without scientific background and developed intuition about science and technology to say what is important and what is not in research.

    Eric Cantor in trying to reinvent the Golden Fleece Award is doing a real disservice to the country.

    1. John, thank you for your comment! Two other great examples added to the list. While I'd heard of the Golden Fleece Award, I'd never looked into it until now. I love that several of the award winners were for projects that *did* end up having played a major role in advancing knowledge in one way or another.

  12. I've added two more examples to the list:
    - Investigations of why particular bacteriophages could not infect certain strains of bacteria (restriction) led to the discovery of restriction enzymes, which were essential for genetic engineering.
    - Barnett Rosenberg tried to investigate effects of electric currents on bacterial growth. He then realised that his results were due to an electrolysis product form a platinum electrode. This led to the use of cisplatin - the first platinum-based anti-cancer agent.

    1. Whoa! Thank you for the additions, sir! Those are really cool. I love this kind of thing.