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… and why we need it

By Josie Glausiusz


 

Over the years, I have written many stories about the peculiar corners of science: the Japanese researchers who discovered that pigeons can distinguish between the paintings of Monet and Picasso, for example, or the chap who discovered a new species of a segmented micro-animal called a tardigrade—AKA water bear or moss piglet—beneath a pile of dried mud and dead leaves on his own balcony. I’ve delved into research showing that shrimp exposed to Prozac are more likely to be devoured by predatory fish or birds, and studies showing that some marine snails “conceal their gender identity” in order to avoid too much mating.

It is sad that some people, including some politicians, are unimpressed by obscure findings and assume such research to be a waste of time and money. One target of their antipathy is Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. In 2009 she received a federal grant of $384,989 to study duck penises, vaginas, and sexual conflict, and has just published a report in the journal BioScience arguing that studies of “unusual evolutionary phenomena”—including research on robotic squirrels, shrimp turning treadmills, snail sex, and duck penises may, over time, lead to unexpected health or economic benefits.

As Brennan wrote to me in an email, “The main reason why I have become interested in public perception of science is because last year my research was politically attacked by extreme media, and then included in Senator [Tom] Coburn’s Wastebook 2013 report,” which, according to the Senator’s website, highlights the “most egregious spending of 2013.” “This was surprising to me,” she wrote, “since my research had been reported on very positively for several years already, starting in 2007, and people always found it fascinating and weird.”

Brennan and her colleagues explain in BioScience that many people believe the federal government should fund only applied science designed to “cure disease, develop renewable energy, or improve agriculture.” They may not understand that the scientific process is “convoluted and unpredictable,” or that it takes a great deal of basic science work before its application leads to significant health or economic benefits. Another problem, Brennan told me, is that many people “have absolutely no idea how science is funded and how little money we actually get for it.” In fact, as she notes, the percentage of the overall budget that Congress allocates to science “has declined from 2.91 to 2.77 percent of our GDP between 2009-2011 (and that percentage includes the science budget for the Department of Defense, which is about half of all our research budget).” For comparison, 19 percent of the U.S. budget, or $643 billion, was allocated for defense and “security-related international activities” in 2013.

She and her colleagues cite a number of technologies inspired by esoteric evolutionary innovations. Examples include Geckskin,“a reusable, glue-free adhesive pad” invented after decades of research on the soft hairs coating gecko toepads, which enables the lizards to walk upside down; and widespread use of an enzyme called Taq polymerase—first isolated in 1965 from a bacterium surviving in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park—to replicate short strings of DNA. That enzyme has brought “vast benefits” to medicine, agriculture, and the criminal justice system, they say. Brennan’s own research could lead to improved understanding of hypospadias, a birth defect that causes malformation of the penis in baby boys.

We should also care about esoteric science because of a lesson I’ve learned from my children, who will stop whatever they are doing to examine the tiniest ant, Daddy-Long-Legs or pretty stripe-winged bird. For children, the riches of the world are to be found in its wondrous minutiae. Investigators of obscure phenomena help sustain and share their wonder.

Josie Glausiusz has written about every topic known to science, from physics to furry animals, for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. She is the co-author of Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects.

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