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Does Scientific Research Need a Purpose?

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

I get asked a variety of questions when I speak to groups of grad students. The most common, as you might suspect, is: “How much pizza are we allowed to take?”

But last month, a student at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, asked a question I hadn’t heard before at one of these events: “How can we combat the stereotype of scientists wasting money?”

The surprising part of the question was the last two words, because as soon as he’d asked “How can we combat the stereotype of scientists?” I had already thought of several places the question could go.

How can we combat the stereotype of scientists as nerds? How can we combat the stereotype of scientists as obsessive tinkerers? How can we combat the stereotype of scientists as sexual deities whose coital stamina is measured in parsecs?

But wasting money? Is that a common stereotype about scientists? I mean, we do use money, but we use it. We build machines and design power plants and invent medicines. We’re not the ones who revel in extravagances such as limos, jets, and adequate health care. Sure, we have the occasional lab party with beer, but we hide that pretty well from our funding agencies.

The student went on to describe his discomfort when discussing his research with nonscientist friends. A second student agreed. She had recently rationalized her work to a relative, explaining that, yes, she was developing a drug, but it’s still in the early stages—so if a hundred individual things go right, then maybe her drug would become real and useful in about 15 years.

If you’re a grad student and your principal investigator (PI) says, 'Today, you will research the impact of your car on picking up my dry cleaning,' you can’t exactly disagree.

We’re accused of wasting money, wasting time. Spending 15 years on compounds that no human will ever likely inject or ingest. Studying the dusty corners of the universe but neglecting the bigger picture. Bear DNA. Shrimp on treadmills. The mating habits of screwworms. Writing our obscure little papers in our obscure little journals, blind to the fact that our research will only elucidate the trivial, or, even worse, the obvious.

Now that the question has been asked, I see this attitude everywhere. Comedians say things like: “This week, scientists at Johns Hopkins University published a study proving that straight men enjoy looking at breasts. Do we really need a study for that?” Or Jay Leno’s snarky reply to research he deems unimportant: “Scientists at UCLA announced they have developed a unicycle for squirrels. Hey guys—how’s that cure for AIDS coming?”

And that’s where I feel conflicted. Because a part of me acknowledges, sensibly, that a squirrel unicycle is a waste of time and money (though probably darn cute). But another part gets mad, wanting to yell at the TV, “We’re not all working on cures for AIDS, dumbass!”

Then the first part asks the second part, “Um … why aren’t you?”

Our kneejerk reflex—and also the usual response of scientific authorities when confronted with a claim that some bit of research is trivial—is to counter that our accuser just doesn’t understand how science works. What if every scientist had been forced to justify his or her wacky-sounding research?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek: “Well, I’m looking through pieces of glass at thin slices of cork.”

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s Backwards and Anachronistic Uncle Who Likes AM Talk Radio and Reruns of 7th Heaven: “Hey Antonie, how’s that cure for bodily humor imbalance in black bile coming?”

The ultimate vindication of useless-sounding research is, in fact, the premise of something called the Golden Goose Award. One of the prizes awarded this past September went to Martin Chalfie and colleagues for their work with jellyfish (Jellyfish! Ridiculous! Also, squishy!) that eventually led to the discovery of green fluorescent protein, a biomarker now used by scientists around the world to tackle an inconceivable array of medical problems.

So there’s the easy conclusion: Philistines may call our work trivial, but we can shoot back, “You never know which discoveries will be important!” and walk away smiling. With 50 more years of discoveries in place, maybe the squirrel unicycle will prove the key component of the only viable source of clean energy on the planet, and your work will be called seminal. (In current science, “seminal” means “not yet digitized and, therefore, difficult to access.”)

Except it’s not that easy, because there have been several times during my training and career that I’ve doubted the importance of my own work. I realize this isn’t something scientists are supposed to admit, but I’ve had days when I’ve spent 10 hours in the lab only to come home and think, “Well, that was a squirrel unicycle day.”

How about you?

As a grad student, I once spent 2 months demonstrating that three particular amino acids on a protein in the arabinose operon (the group of genes that allows bacteria to metabolize a certain sugar) do not play a role in causing that protein to bind to other copies of itself. This discovery has no practical application whatsoever. But for 2 months, it was my project. It was my life. If someone had criticized my work as time-wasting and money-wasting, I don’t think I could have disagreed.

And here’s where it gets hard to give advice. It’s so easy to say, “If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, go do something else!”

Credit: Hal Mayforth

But it’s really not that straightforward. Scientists get stuck working on imperfect projects for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you were awarded a grant to research something and then your interest in that thing waned, but the money paying you to work on that thing didn’t. Maybe you work for a company, department, or other massive entity that defines your area of focus; it’s unwise to walk into the CEO’s office and declare, “I know we make pharmaceuticals, but I’d really like to work on a glacier. Do we have any field offices on glaciers?” Maybe you’re too low on the totem pole to define your own area of research: If you’re a grad student and your principal investigator (PI) says, “Today, you will research the impact of your car on picking up my dry cleaning,” you can’t exactly disagree.

There’s a popular misconception that scientists pursue every passion that drives them, or can if they want to, but it rarely works that way. Our areas of expertise are deep but narrow, and starting a new project isn’t as easy as simply making a choice. Even if I have a brilliant idea about something directly related to my field, practical constraints—equipment availability, funding, a PI’s obstinacy—can make it impossible to instantly switch.

So, what can you do if you find your own research irrelevant? Start poking around. See what else is out there. Read papers. Realize that even if the research you’ve been doing seems pointless, it has taught you lessons that can be applied to other, more compelling problems. Figure out what those problems are and then start gradually working toward solving one of them.

The transition may not be pretty. You might spend years in that tumultuous hell called “second postdoc.” But after that, you’ll have decades of professional life left in which you’ll be able to go to work every day believing in what you’re doing, knowing that your research is impervious to the criticism of your backwards uncle. Or even Leno:

Leno: “Hey, guys, how’s that cure for AIDS coming?”

You: “Oh, pretty well. In fact, it’s right here in this test tube, bitch.