Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Funding "Meaningless" Research

Again, staying on the scientific sides of politics, it is very common for politicians of a certain persuasion to rant and rave about wasteful research supported by the federal government. Giving chickens Perrier water [*] is my favorite example; you'll have your own.

What never gets mentioned are is what is really happening behind the research, no matter how silly it may seem or even how inane it really is. In every case of research, a student is getting educated and a higher degree - either a master's or a Ph.D. The only way those degrees come about (in the sciences and engineering at least) is from government support of research.

At least when I was in grad school, the payback to the government and society was pretty clear. At my first job, I was paying in taxes what I used to receive as my stipend; I am now a better educated engineer, able to contribute to my employer and our clients in ways far beyond what I could without the advanced degree. The actual work that I produced has had little practical value, but that is beside the point. It was only a vehicle for an advanced education, not an end in itself.

So the next time you hear a politician rail on money going to study the birth defect in earthworms or some other silliness, think of the students behind the work bettering themselves. That is always a success even if the research is a failure.

[*] I remember this one well. Illinois has a very big ag department. One of the researchers discovered that chickens laid poorer quality eggs in the summer because the eggshells had less CaCO3 in them, a result of the chickens expiring CO2 in an effort to stay cool. (Like dogs, chickens don't sweat and cool themselves through increase respiration rates.) So one thought was to increase the CO2intake in the chicken by giving them carbonated water. The local press actually called it "Perrier Water", apparently taking it as a generic term. While this approach did work, it was found to be more cost effective to run cool water through the chicken's perches.

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