Tuesday, March 26, 2013

It's Called Basic Science for a Reason!

How many times have you come across a news story on the results of a new study, have scrolled down to the Comments section, and have read these bright gems of opinion:

[WARNING: Actually reading the Comments section of any science news article may cause headaches, nausea, gastrointestinal cramping, the urge to bang your head repeatedly against your desk, and your morning beverage to be involuntarily spewed onto your computer screen in disbelief.]

Theme: "Why is our government wasting money on studies like this when Political Scoring Point X needs attention?" 
Quoted Example: "How can you expect people to live on mars when they can't even live traditionaly [sic] on earth"

Theme: "The study of X has been going on for how long? Damn free-loading, lazy scientists!"
Quoted Example 1: "Close it, log it, burn it, pave it . . . whatever it takes to ensure two more generations of civil servants and government funded "researchers," don't live a life on easy street on my tax dollar. Don't you think that since 1968, just about everything we need to know or study about a few lakes has been studied, re-studied and studied again??"
Quoted Example 2: "this area is of no concern to the public,its just a paid vacation for a bunch of freeloading scientists"
Story: Experimental Lakes Area uncertain future met with mixed reaction

Theme: "This study has no benefit to society! What a stupid study!"
Quoted Example 1: "How about a study that studies the stupidity of those who want to conduct these kind of stupid studies? How about giving that $400G back to the people, because that's a better use of our money and we are better custodians of it than this government can hope to be."
Quoted Example 2: "Does this go through Congress for approval? We need names of any Congress members that vote for this garbage!"

[I would have added more, but reading these Comments had a serious harshing effect on my mellow.]
That, my friends, is the vehement battle-cry of the staunch Science Rejector (and here's the link that will shamelessly take you to my post on "Public Encounters of the Pleasant and Frustrating Kind"), a personality type that cannot (or will not) acknowledge the value of science that does not immediately increase the ease of their existence.

These comments do not speak well of either the intelligence or the mental stability of the Commenter. Scientists study stupid and pointless subjects. Scientists waste time and money on research that could be used to feed the homeless or cure cancer. Scientists conspire to trick you out of your money because they are too lazy to raise the funds elsewhere. Do these sound like the opinions of a well-balanced individual, or like the temper-tantrum of someone who needs a laxative and a nap? Or, are they lashing out at something which they do not understand, because admitting that lack of understanding is just too darn scary to consider? To be fair, many of the Science Rejectors are harshly criticized by their fellow Commenters, which means that there is a portion of our society that supports the continuation of basic science.

What is basic science? Basic science asks the fundamental questions, and then finds out the answers. The answers to those fundamental questions are what leads to the science that we, as a society, seem to have no problem understanding: the applied sciences. Discoveries are basic science. Treatments and innovations are applied science. Some basic science studies are short and targeted, while others need decades of running and experimentation to obtain the data.

Want to know how to treat and prevent Lyme disease? Hopefully a scientist has documented how the metabolism works of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease in North America, Borrelia burgdorferi. Hopefully a scientist has documented how B. burgdorferi is transmitted. Hopefully a team of scientists spent many seasons in the bush documenting the life cycle of the Ixodes scapularis so that you know which sex is transmitting the disease and at what time of year people are most likely to contract it. Treating and preventing Lyme disease is an application of all of the information gathered when discovering the answers to those basic science questions.

But what about duck sex? Why do we need to know how ducks reproduce unless we are breeding them for commercial purposes? People who ask those questions (and they came up a great deal in the much-loathed Comments section of the Fox News article above) confuse basic science with applied science. Carl Zimmer on National Geographic's Phenomena discusses the importance of duck sex research despite the cultural backlash, and why these basic biological studies on animals are essential to scientific progress. If the Canadian government truly wants to believe that "science powers commerce", they have to stop tearing down their capacity to do basic science, otherwise they will keep re-inventing the same tired ol' wheel.

From where does this inability to appreciate basic science originate? I can only speak from an anecdotal perspective, but I think it starts early in our education. I was a science nut in elementary and high-school, especially in biology. I was fortunate in having an exceptionally good Biology 10 teacher. He introduced us to the differences between natural selection and Lamarckism, and how the data is collected for evolutionary biology studies. We did population counts of pond water biota over several days to see how time and certain environmental conditions control relative abundances of flora and fauna. We subjected bacterial streak plates to different environmental conditions. We then discussed how all of this information could be used for future studies. I came out of Biology 10 with a fairly firm grasp of the differences between basic and applied sciences.

Fast forward to me teaching introductory biology labs. We show the students how to set up a basic experiment. We explain the difference between a null and a working hypothesis. We show the students how to record data and present their results in an unambiguous and (hopefully) legible manner. Then we turn them loose on the "Discussion" section of the lab report. Part of the Discussion section asks the students to find three papers from the primary literature (i.e. scientific journals) and describe how their lab experiment relates to the results of these papers.

This is where the wheels fell off for many students. Some could not make the connection that one small study, like that on a bacterial streak plate, could be the basis for a future study, or be related to a different study on a different bacteria that showed similar results, or that what happened on that streak plate could be the basis for a future treatment against that strain of bacteria. To some, the lab exercise was just another assignment, a stand-alone pile of paper that counted for 10% of their final lab grade.

I hoped that I only had to (figuratively) lead the students by the hand until they saw the right path, and then I could turn them loose to mentally explore that path. My reasoning was "I can't think for them. I'll give them clues, I'll give them hints, I'll make them think for themselves", but I forgot that my students may not have had the same grounding that I did on the importance of basic science. The students went into this exercise not knowing the difference between basic and applied science, or why you cannot have applied science without first knowing the basics. I wish I could re-teach those labs.

The necessity of basic science is something that we need to elaborate on in our education system. I would argue that at the post-secondary level we are already too late: not everyone goes to college or university, but everyone is a member of society, and that society decides who gets elected into public office. Society chooses the people who make decisions with our tax dollars, such as whether free science communication is important, and whether research programs such as the Experimental Lakes Area are supported. The necessity of basic science needs to be emphasized in the elementary and high-school years. All it takes is an instructor to get the students to think and discuss questions such as "Why do you think it is important to document the number of frogs around a lake each year?" or "What can we learn by studying photosynthesis?"

I hope that the recent outcry on the vote against supporting the Experimental Lakes Area, and the apparent outrage at using federal money to study duck penises, will spur more scientists than ever to increase their outreach activities at public schools. Contact your schools and organize just one guest lecture where you talk to the kids about your basic science, the basic science of your colleagues, and why that science is important. Explain how a basic study in your field led to an applied benefit, even though no one thought of that benefit at the time of the study. When the kids ask questions, make sure to emphasize that "Well, we never would have figure it out if someone hadn't done this basic study back in 1980/1908/1898." Kids are naturally curious and are natural explorers: why not show them early on in their educational years how and why basic science is done? 

On a different note, should ducks now be the mascot of Basic Science? Why not!

"Choose me for your mascot! Look at how handsome I am! My nether regions are well studied." Northern Pintail (Anas acutus). Image: Ducks Unlimited.

Until next time, QUACK!


UPDATE 05/07/2013

Just when I thought that the Conservative majority government couldn't be more ignorant about science and how scientific progresses are achieved, they went and hit an all new low. The National Research Council, once the major funding powerhouse for both student and academic researchers (think the Canadian version of the NSF) has been "retooled".  "The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull." according to Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear.

No, there is nothing wrong with funding innovation-based projects, but this should not happen at the expense of basic research, which is in danger of being abandoned or given a lower priority.

I don't know how many different ways people of this profit-driven mindset have to be told that, if you kneecap basic science, you are also kneecapping your path to innovation. You can't build the cart and expect the horse to pull it if the horse starved to death in its stable. An inelegant metaphor, but it's the best I can do on short notice.


  1. Oh gee.. this is the story of my life. Imagine growing up dreaming about a science career, then following that science career... and having a dad who is a pastor and constantly questions my research on dinosaur teeth in the following manner: but how does this apply to men? I swear one day I just HAD to answer: well, I don't know about men, but women sure think those teeth are sexy.

    Miss you here at the uni, by the way! And very nice blog!

  2. I love that reply! Sometimes the urge to joke, be flippant, or be a smart-ass is too strong (three things I am accused of doing on a basis frequent enough to cause frowns and glares). I can't speak for your dad's perspective, but in general I think it is difficult for people who are not interested in (or don't understand) basic science to see what the potential long-term benefits and spin-offs might be, or that there might not even be any spin-offs in mind when you start, but someone uses your work to come up with that new cool technology or cure.

    Paleontology often comes under the "What's the point?" attack. The general public gets caught up in the neat curiosity aspect or the documenterainment aspect of paleontology (who doesn't enjoy a doog 3D computer generated dinosaur?) and can't see past the entertainment value to the science: we are doing what we can to figure out an ecosystem that rose, flourished, and dramatically changed without our presence. The past is our baseline to help study what is happening today. Everyone in paleontology plays their part in establishing that baseline.

    I'm glad you like the blog, and I'll be popping by the uni soon!

  3. What the heck is a "doog"? This is what I get for typing while distracted.