Monday, November 10, 2014

The Importance of “Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever”

Photo of Wisconsin State Assembly
Speaker Robin Vos from
at Wikimedia Commons.
In the afterglow of the Republican national sweep in last Tuesday’s elections, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos discussed his agenda for the next legislative session for the state of Wisconsin. Apparently, his agenda includes changes to the state’s support of the public University of Wisconsin System: “[We want] to make sure that people who are in the [University of Wisconsin] System are actually teaching, and they’re not using their time for purposes that don’t directly impact the lives ... of students,” Vos said. “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on, you know, ancient mating habits of whatever.”

For those of us that teach and do research, statements like these are hurtful and shockingly ignorant in many ways. But the biggest take-home message to me about this comment is how popular and dangerous this sentiment is across the nation because of the scientific community’s failure to communicate the relevance and importance of our work to the general public.

Scientific research takes two major forms: basic research and applied research. If we want “research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy”, we will generally turn to applied research: research that is geared towards solving a specific problem. However, in order to solve our specific problems, we need to have knowledge of how the systems work, what factors influence them and how those factors work. All of this general knowledge is obtained though basic research: research that is geared towards improving our knowledge or understanding without an immediate applied purpose. Applied research would not be possible without the foundation that basic research provides.

Everything we have depends on knowledge gained by past basic research. Many of our farming practices and cancer treatments would not be possible without the discovery of DNA. Medications for mental illnesses and seizures would not exist without continued research on neurotransmitters. The internet and satellite TV would not exist if it were not for support of basic research. Sometimes the potential future applications of basic research are obvious, but most of the time, they are not. Even basic research on the “ancient mating habits of whatever” could provide us with valuable insight on pest controls, agriculture and raising livestock, or even medical treatments. We don’t know exactly where basic research will take us, but we know it will take us forward.

Not only does the knowledge we gain from basic research move us forward, but the very act of conducting the research promotes economic prosperity. For example, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the flagship university in the University of Wisconsin System, brings in approximately $1 billion every year in grants. This money provides jobs for the faculty researchers, their research staff and their graduate students. It provides additional jobs to people that maintain research facilities, care for research animals, and produce research equipment and supplies. The projects provide training and experience for post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates, who would not otherwise be able to compete for the jobs they aspire to. Simply getting good grades in college is not enough to get into graduate school, medical school or veterinary school. Schools and competitive jobs want applicants with experience. These basic research projects provide students with the opportunities to gain this experience under the supervision of an expert (who, by the way, is also a trained teacher). Supporting basic research is a win-win!

The dangerous lack of appreciation for the value of basic research is not just a Wisconsin problem; It is not just a United States problem; It is a global problem. The general public simply does not get enough information about the value of current research to understand why they should care. Let’s change this! Go to the Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever Facebook page and leave a post about basic research that has impacted you. Summarize your research in 140 characters or less and post it on Twitter with the hashtag #AncientMatingHabitsOfWhatever. Write your representative and tell him or her why basic research matters. Because we cannot move forward without it.

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