Back to the basics: what we don’t know we don’t know

Basic research can look ridiculous at times...
Basic research can look ridiculous…

Why do we conduct fundamental biological research? Why do researchers devote miserable hours in dark basements to what a fellow graduate student describes as rather unglamorous data crunching and document editing? Why participate in a Ph.D. program and career that even the successful survivors describe as traumatic and soul crushing? Why should a cash-strapped government invest in genotyping grizzly bears or getting monkeys high on cocaine?

I recently wrote a statement aimed at my representatives in Congress on the importance of such research. I cited drug development, wild land firefighting, tourism, and other applications that rely on discoveries regarding the fundamental nature of the biological systems we seek to manipulate. I invoked the percentage of GDP other countries are spending on scientific research, the economic impact of good jobs and skilled workers that has led Tucson to brand itself as a Science City.

These are the metrics and tools a harried official or her or his staff might provide a skeptical constituent to defend a press release or vote. But arguments relying on applications of discovery kind of miss the point. The point is not discovery, but the search itself.

The point is often to better understand the world around us: how it works and why. The mysterious “life force” that many cultures have speculated philosophically about is relevant to our very sense of self, and to making decisions on the morality of what constitutes life. I could branch off here into discussing the way answers to these questions can be applied to decide when to continue life support, or to support the human need for spiritual fulfillment by providing perspective on what it means to be alive. It is so easy to get sucked in to relating results back to life in justifying the time, money, and angst required for fundamental biological research.

Biologists trying to explain the importance of fundamental research without relying on direct benefits of discoveries can sound as cheesy or flippant as rock climbers trying to explain our adventures. The sense of curiosity and the desire to meet  the challenge issued by the remaining unknown is similar. Until we explore a little further, we don’t know what we don’t know.

As Carl Sagan put it in Cosmos, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

And really, that is the point of fundamental research. All those benefits I cited are just a bonus.

Ridiculous it may seem, but basic research can transform your perspective.

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