The Use of Seemingly Useless Research

Freya Preimesberger | Assistant Editor of Natural Sciences

The Ig Nobel Prize, a satirical version of the coveted Nobel Prize, awards scientists who have made bizarre or trivial discoveries that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” One recipient is Michael Smith, a former PhD student in Harvard University’s entomology department, who helped to develop a pain index for bee stings on various body parts. Smith allowed bees to sting him on 25 different parts of his body, three times each for consistency. He found that the most painful locations for bee stings are the nostril, upper lip and the shaft of the penis. However, the Ig Nobel Prize was not made to mock the scientific process or its findings. One of the motives of the Annals of Improbable Research, the host magazine, is to spark interest in science and technology and to encourage people to think deeply about the scientific research they encounter–even if it seems absurd.  

In recent years, politicians have pointed their fingers to scientific research as an area where taxpayer money is wasted, and the Trump administration has made moves to cut science agencies’ budgets. In 2011, Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Coburn published a report on several studies that he considered to be wastes of money, which garnered news coverage. One of these examples was a study using “shrimp on treadmills,” purported to have cost taxpayers a staggering $500,000. Critics rushed to call it an example of problematic government spending. In reality, the money spent on shrimp treadmills was a small fraction of a $500,000 research grant, and the study was gathering data on water quality and a disease afflicting a type of shrimp that acts as a major food source.

Photo courtesy: Tessa Solomon-Lane

People are quick to paint certain research as frivolous, according to Dr. Tessa Solomon-Lane, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. But it’s important to realize that basic science research, even when it sounds outlandish, can reap findings that are incredibly significant.

One such case arose in the 18th century when an Italian priest and scholar named Lazzaro Spallanzani grew skeptical of the concept of spontaneous generation. At the time, it was believed that living organisms could be born from nonliving matter. For example, one “recipe” for this notion of spontaneous generation said that by adding wheat husks to used underwear would cause mice to form in three weeks’ time. Spallanzani theorized that, to create life, an egg and sperm were necessary. To investigate his theory, he took male frogs and fitted them with “tight taffeta pants” and allowed them to try to mate with female frogs. Sperm cells failed to pass through the pants and none of the females had children. These results contrasted with the pantless control group, which saw impregnated frogs. By putting tight pants on frogs, Spallanzani was the first to discover that the reproduction of animals required sperm and an egg. A separate experiment involving fitting grassfinches with hats, which revealed information about the evolution of mate preferences. A third study, in which scientists dressed rats in sweaters, was informative of the early formation of sexual preferences in rats and, since people and rats have similar nervous systems, maybe humans.

In addition to showing us that even silly sounding research can be incredibly informative, these studies highlight the importance of funding basic research. The public tends to focus on research related to medicine and quality of life, overlooking the benefits of other types of research. “I think funding basic research is incredibly important and it has a value that is sometimes hard to see, because it’s not goal-oriented in the sense that the outcome isn’t supposed to be an outcome for society,” said Dr. Solomon-Lane in an interview. “It’s built on the principle that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is important. Breakthroughs come from some very unexpected and cool places.”  

Funding rates have plunged in recent years, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to receive tenure or a grant for a research project. Cuts in funding and other policies, like the recent move to make graduate students’ stipends and tuition waivers taxable in the GOP tax bill, hinder scientific progress and make research careers inaccessible for much of the population. Basic research, which tends to be more open-ended and generates many more questions than simple answers, is especially prone to losing funding.

“One potential solution is to better engage the public and politicians on the importance of research and get involved with public policy,” Dr. Solomon-Lane said. Scientists can contact their lawmakers to offer to be a science interpreter, suggest input on legislation, and even run for office. Being active in their communities, in and outside of science-related events, can change public perceptions of scientists and their work. “Engagement is a back-and-forth deal,” Dr. Solomon-Lane said. “We’ll have a conversation. And being human in those interactions is very important.”

This article is derived from a talk given by Tessa Solomon-Lane, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, at Nerd Nite.

Featured photo from Wallpaper Cave. 

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