Don’t let the war on science stop valuable yet silly-seeming research, like shrimps on treadmills

What are you laughing at?
What are you laughing at?
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At a time when politicians are attacking science, its practitioners are coming out in hordes to defend their profession. A common attack is to claim that a lot of money is being “wasted” on what on face value seems silly science.

At the American Association for Advancement of Science meeting in Boston, three scientists took to an online forum to explain why such “oddball science” is necessary and how it often results in useful discoveries. We’ve curated the conversation that David Scholnick, a biologist at Pacific University, Patricia (Patty) Brenan, a biologist at Mount Holyoke College, and Brian Baird, a former US congressman and a trained clinical psychologist, had with Redditors.

What’s your favorite silly-sounding study that is actually really important?

Patty: There was a study on growth of rat pups where they discovered that babies needed the mechanical stimulation of the mom to grow properly, so they had undergraduate students “tickle” rats pups to make them grow…. They were made fun of. But they connected with a doctor who studied premature human babies, and she used their research to develop the infant massage technique that helps premature babies grow faster. This technique saves thousands of lives every year and lots of money on medical expenses.

What’s your definition of “odd” science?

Patty: I first saw the term “oddball science” in a newspaper article in the Washington Post. I think it generally refers to projects that are weird and that people have not thought about in a scientific context. As scientists we are usually looking for oddities because this is where more innovative principles of nature can be found: in phenomena that are not easily explained by our current understanding of the world. When we can study these principles, we can then support real innovation in society.

How do you feel about the shrimp treadmill

David: I put a shrimp on a treadmill as part of a large study to understand how disease is affecting marine organisms. The work was completely misrepresented as wasting millions of taxpayer dollars when in fact I built the treadmill for $47, paid for myself. The shrimp were not put on a treadmill to exercise but to measure how bacteria was affecting their biology. The treadmill was only a very small part of a much larger project to better understand commercially important species and possible implications to human health.

What are the most important advancements in the history of science that were once thought of as esoteric, odd, obscure, or silly-sounding?

Patty: Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which is used to amplify DNA and jumpstarted the genetic revolution, was developed from an enzyme found in bacteria (Thermus aquaticus) that was discovered living in thermal pools in Yellowstone Park. Thomas Brock was just walking around when he started thinking about what was the slime growing on those thermal pools…. So just based on his curiosity to try to explain something that seem odd, he discovered something that transformed society.

Brian: If you think about it, the serendipitous observation that certain molds can prevent growth of bacteria seems silly, but of course it lead to penicillin, which is rather important to say the least. In the social sciences, game theory was once derided in US Congress, but it’s produced a host of applications from spectrum auction to organ donor exchanges.

David: It is amazing how easy it is to make basic research sound silly. Trying to understand complex questions requires a very creative approach that can seem on its surface very strange. I have come to realize that most of my work could easily be made to sound silly. Shrimp on a treadmill to study disease. Lizard heart rate monitors to determine how malaria impacts infected lizard pathophysiology.

Given our current climate of increasing scrutiny on the value of scientific research, do you find it harder and harder to sell the public on the value of seemingly obscure and “silly” research?

Patty: Federal funding for research grants has been getting harder, and that makes our jobs more difficult for sure. We study oddball science because it is in exploring anomalies and rarities that we often discover completely new principles of nature. We need to make this connection between studying innovation in nature, and being able to innovate in our society very clear to the public. Some awesome examples are found in biomimicry, [such as how artificial whiskers can help human surgery.]

Not all basic science projects end up becoming some application, but every single application requires basic science. For example, think about the phone in your pocket or the clothes you wear…. They are the direct result of decades of basic science that went into making new discoveries.

How can the “wasteful spending” finger pointing be avoided?

Brian: I know this is not easy or popular among scientists, but we need to honestly ask ourselves before requesting funding if it’s worth taking other people’s hard-earned money through taxes to fund our research. Often it is, but we need to be able to explain why and have at least some reason and response in mind before we start. After that, we need to have a simple, compelling, and honest answer that we can give in a few sentences that explains why what we are doing matters, how we’re doing it, where the money goes, and what the findings might teach us. If we do that, the efficiency of the external attacks will be substantially diminished and we’ll be ready for them if they come.

Patty: My sense is that attacking silly-sounding science erodes public trust in science in general. It makes it sound as if science-funding decisions are frivolous and not subject to very close scrutiny, when nothing could be further from the truth.

People often rail against silly science as a waste of money, but how much money is actually spent of the sort of science you investigate?

Brian: At the big-picture level, total [US] federal spending is a bit over $4 trillion per year. Total National Science Foundation (NSF) funding is a bit over $7 billion. That total NSF budget includes a number of big-ticket expenditures, so what is left for smaller studies is much less. It should be noted that NSF is not the total recipient of science funding. Roughly speaking, total science funding, which includes NASA and other big investments totals about $30 billion. The challenge is that it’s easy to deride small studies and imply that those “wasteful” examples are part of a larger government out of control and if we just reign this in we can fund everything else, including social security, medicare, defense etc. That’s of course nonsense mathematically, but people believe it.

What was it like being a pro-science politician?

Brian: I came to realize rather surprisingly and rather late that, as a scientist, information that contradicts something I may have believed is not seen [by me] as a threat, but for many others in Congress contradictory information is seen as a threat. That’s a strange position to me, but perfectly normal for them. Add to that the fact that most members of Congress have very little knowledge of the scientific method or findings, especially in esoteric or highly technical fields. So then you’ve got potential conflicts in perspective, knowledge, values, and purpose. Then throw in a public that has similar perspectives and you have a complex challenge. All that said, I think it’s precisely why we need more scientists in public office and more scientists engaged in public advocacy for science.