Science, money, and “unknown unknowns”

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Yellow slime mold

With the sequester in full force, there’s been a lot of talk about wasteful government programs and the debt, and whenever we start talking about the national debt, inevitably it seems a few Senators or Congressmen trot out a list of all the research projects they think the government is wasting its money on; this time is no different.

In particular, a couple of research projects into the mating behavior of slugs and duck penises have been singled out as an absurd waste of taxpayer money. I mean, what possible benefit could there be to society to learn the intracacies of a duck’s penis, or how slugs get it on?

And, superficially, it makes sense—in times of financial crunch, we should be spending money on the things that are important, like national defense and healthcare, not fulfilling the simple curiosity of a researcher interested in the spiralled penis of your local neighborhood mallard. If we are going to fund science, it should be on new medical treatments or improved body armor for our troops, not on how slime mold reproduces. That is, we should be funding the projects that we know can improve the quality of our lives.

But what these Senators and (usually) conservative pundits fail to recognize is that this basic, fundamental research—driven by the simple curiosity of researchers—is not only essential for applied research projects, like improved missile defense or better cancer treatments, but an extremely good investment.

If I showed you a glob of slime mold and asked you if we could use it to improve the world around us, what would you say? You might say “No,” which would be a reasonable assumption, given that slime mold is what it sounds like. But the more accurate answer would be “I don’t know.” Because you don’t—how could you? The only way to answer that question is to do basic research on it.

And it turns out it is useful. Slime mold has been studied for some time by researchers driven by their curiosity for this very strange, gross organism. Only later, after this basic research was done, did other scientists, mathematicians, and engineers come along and see how it might be useful: the growth patterns of slime mold have been used to develop better models for computer networks and urban planning, and has even been used to help predict how cancer will spread in the body, possibly opening up new avenues for treatment.

But there is no way to know this without first understanding something about the organism, even just its reproductive habits. Without first studying the mating behavior of slugs, we have no way to determine if this will be useful to us as a society. By very definition, how could we? It is, to quote Rumsfeld, an “unknown unknown.”

Only after conducting basic research on abelones and mantis shrimp did we realize that the way they construct their exoskeleton could pave the way for advanced body armor. Only after conducting basic research into the behavior of light and atoms were we able to invent lasers, computers, microwave ovens, and iPhones. The applied research—the kind with immediate benefits to society—can only happen when the basic research has been done. A field can only be sewn after it’s been ploughed; we can only invent with the tools and materials we already know to exist.

Take again the slime mold. The amount of basic research done on this slimy, nasty creature with apparently no use to humanity has already inspired work in fields as disparate as medecine, computer science, and urban planning. This brings us to our second point:

Basic research is not information that is purchased, but an investment made in future scientists and engineers. By generating new discoveries and ideas, we create the potential that this information will be the spark of an idea in some future inventor to create something altogether new or life-changing, and this serves as an incredible engine for economic development.

For every $1 the Human Genome Project cost—basic research of the type ridiculed—it generated $140 of growth in the us economy. I can think of no other type of investment with such a staggering return on investment: that is a 1,400% return rate! Not every project is necessarily going to be as successful; the slug research might not return any of the $2 million it cost to fund it. But basic research is, by its very nature, trying to learn something about our world; that very fact makes it impossible for us to know if it’s worthwhile or not.

So how do we decide what to fund? Well, what we do know is that research is very cheap. $2 million sure does have a lot of zeros in the number, but in the scope of the entire us budget, it is basically chump change. Secondly, even if only 1 out of 10 projects succeed at the scale of the Human Genome Project, that is still a $14 return on every $1 spent.

In other words, when the us funds basic research, it is not spending money, it is investing it, and for a very healthy return.

So when you hear about some research project that seems like it might not hold much merit, or is a waste of time and money, just think of slime mold. Research into its reproductive habits may just lead to better treatments for cancer, a faster Internet, or even just less traffic.