It’s a common trope among anti-science people that government money (“our tax dollars”) are being spent on what seem to be frivolous scientific experiments or research programs. For instance, earlier this year Steve Moore, who probably has some qualifications I’m completely unconcerned about, complained on Real Time about research being spent on “snail mating habits.” This was part of a broader critique of science funding, which he felt could be better used for… well something, probably.
In the spirit of attacking anti-science sentiments wherever they can be found, I would like to share these five reasons (in a list, because lists are cool) why what I’m calling “frivolous science” should be funded.
1. “You’re not a scientist.”
Zack Kopplin says it best when he points out that the people calling for an end to science funding never have any understanding of exactly what it is they’re trying to defund. Scientific research often has important ramifications that non-experts are unaware of. This is why we have people who review grant applications, and why those people are also experts in their fields. So, most likely the research in question is not frivolous, but has a point that’s not readily obvious to the non-expert.
As an example, I can think of a few ways in which knowledge of snail mating habits could be useful: Often, disruption in the regular mating habits of animals is a sign of a deeper environmental problem, and knowing the regular mating habits of, say, snails could help determine whether a problem exists. Or, scientists could discover a harmful parasite (or maybe this parasite has already been discovered) which spends part of its life cycle inside a snail, and knowing snail mating habits would help track its spread. Also, knowledge of snail mating habits would be extremely useful to snail breeders, which I assume is a fairly large industry in places like France.
2. Someone will make a buck off of it.
People are really good at turning pretty much anything into cash. I guarantee you that no matter how completely useless the research is, someone will find a way to make money from it. If you’re worried about money going to fund science instead of strengthening the private sector, those fears are probably unfounded. I’m sure those snail breeders are pretty happy with the results of that study.
3. Many of history’s greatest discoveries were made by accident.
There are hundreds of scientific discoveries that were made completely by accident, often when the scientist in question was researching something else. There are plenty of lists (A list of lists! Inside another list! How quaint.) of scientific discoveries or inventions that were made by accident. What would have happened if people had decided that Alexander Fleming’s bacteria research wasn’t important? By defunding research that seems unimportant, it’s possible (even probable, in the long run) that we’re missing important scientific discoveries because someone didn’t get the chance to accidentally spill something.
4. Even if it’s not useful now, that doesn’t mean it’ll never be.
The complete ramifications of many scientific discoveries are often not apparent immediately after those discoveries are made, and some aren’t apparent for years after. I’m sure the people who invented the maser could never anticipate the wide variety of uses for its successor, the laser, which is found in nearly everything. So basing the importance of scientific research only on applications that are visible when the research is being performed completely ignores any potential future applications which can make the research much more vital.
5. Science is an all or nothing game.
Even if scientific research never leads to useful discoveries or inventions, and even if that research never makes a penny for anyone, it’s still important to fund it. Every piece of knowledge helps us to understand the world better, which can only be a good thing.
Science is important. Science saves lives, and makes the quality of our lives better. But that progress and innovation is only possible in an environment free of personal agenda or external judgement. Once we start determining whether research is “relevant” or “productive,” we stifle creativity and discovery. Scientists are more focused on proving the necessity of their research, and less focused on the research itself. And, of course, good science gets overlooked.
We can never pick and choose which research is “useful” or “important” without sacrificing good, valuable science along the way. If we want satellites and chemotherapy, we also need snail research. It’s all or nothing.