Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Purpose in scientific research

Throughout this arsenic-life NASA saga, I’ve been trying to pinpoint the fundamental reasons to explain why this story got out of hand.  Why did NASA feel the need to uber-hype this research?  Why the rush to publish research even if it may not have been ready?

I’ve drawn the conclusion that the primary cause is the need to be PURPOSEFUL while performing scientific research.  For an example, I’ll take the research I currently work on.  I study the aging process in yeast cells, focusing on how the cells’ epigenome changes as a cell gets “older.”  We do this research under a federally-funded grant, for which our purpose is to study the aging process to help us better understand cancer and other age-related diseases.

But, to be honest, I don’t really care about cancer.  I mean, I am someone who is perhaps a bit too comfortable with my mortality, but even beyond that: I actually just think the idea of different proteins and other factors manipulating what sections of DNA are translated and expressed is fascinating.  I want to understand this process better – what proteins do what?  how is this different in different cell types? how did this system evolve? – and this “aging grant” is really just an excuse for me to do so.

I doubt I’m alone here.  I think a lot of scientists are more interested in uncovering the various processes, not for the good of mankind, but simply because we want to understand.  (Correct me if I’m wrong, scientists.)  I’d be happy to cure cancer along the way if I can, but in terms of my own goals and what is possible during my brief stint in this field, I just want to understand this system a little bit better than when I started.

Science wasn’t always done with a purpose.  Think about Charles Darwin.  Sure, he was interested in natural history, but he was on the Beagle to provide friendship to the captain.  Along the way, he collected a bunch of samples of mockingbirds and finches and other organisms, and it wasn’t till decades later that he put the pieces together and formulated his theory of selection of the fittest.  He didn’t collect specimens on his travels for any real purpose, but used the data he collected to draw conclusions later.

Of course, back then science was primarily done by rich men with too much time on their hands.  Now science is the forefront of innovation and progress;  we need more people than bored rich men to be studying it and, hell, anyone should get a chance to do so!  But with greater knowledge and technology, we need more money.  And since I’m not a rich bored man, I don’t have any money.

That’s where the government comes in: grants to fund research.  But since it is taxpayers that are funding this research, it should have goals that will benefit those taxpayers.  Thus I study aging and cancer.  And these grants do keep us on task.  If I find a cool mutation that alters the epigenome of my yeastie beasties and it’s not related to the aging process, I will not be following up on that project.

I go back and forth on whether this is a good thing.  On the one hand, it keeps us accountable to the government and taxpayers, who give us our funding.  But on the other hand, does research for a purpose help us really advance in biology, help us better understand how life works?

One of my bosses, a great scientist, doctor and philosopher king, recently emailed this quote to our lab from Carol Greider, a recent Nobel Prize winner for her work on the discovery of the aging-related enzyme telomerase:

“The quiet beginnings of telomerase research emphasize the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research. At the time that it is conducted, such research has no apparent practical applications. Our understanding of the way the world works is fragmentary and incomplete, which means that progress does not occur in a simple, direct and linear manner. It is important to connect the unconnected, to make leaps and to take risks, and to have fun talking and playing with ideas that might at first seem outlandish.”

This idea burns me to my very core.  Purpose-based science assumes a certain knowledge of the systems we’re studying.  But, let’s face it: we still have so much to learn.  We’re all still flailing toddlers, trying to find a surface to hoist ourselves upon so that we can actually get somewhere.  While scientists are often conceived to be smart and have all the answers, we actually don’t have many.  The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know anything at all.

But instead of being allowed to play, to follow up on work because it’s exciting, to take risks, we have to make sure we stay within the limits of our funding and, thus, our purpose.  Because “playing” or studying something because we think it’s AWESOME doesn’t provide evidence of “progress.”

I could be entirely wrong: maybe the old adage that progress is made in leaps and bounds (as opposed to baby steps, I suppose) is farcical.  Maybe I only believe this because my human soul that thrives on chaos is drawn to it.

Either way: the purpose of research is overemphasized.  When I read papers, I am interested in knowing how their discovery fits into “practical knowledge” (“There is hardly anything known about X disease, BUT WE FOUND SOMETHING!”), but more than that, I’m interested in how it fits in with the current model of whatever system they are studying.  But that rarely gets as much attention in papers.

And this idea of “purpose” is why science in the media is so often overhyped.  News articles often take a definitive stance on how the new study has contributed to the public good.  Maybe it’s “eating blueberries will preserve your memory” or “sleeping 8 hours will make you attractive.”  This makes the science easy to digest, sure, but it also paints an incomplete picture.  These studies are just tiny pieces in a puzzle that scientists will continue to work on for decades.  It’s pure hubris to believe that non-scientists cannot understand the scientific process – that they cannot understand that it takes incremental steps.  But, nonetheless, if your research cannot be easily hyped, no one will hear about it, so you have to serve a purpose.

So with NASA’s arsenic-based life.  The current model, both in funding and the media, of requiring purpose to justify research forced NASA to claim a greater purpose for its discovery: “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

To give both NASA and the researchers the benefit of the doubt, let’s just say they found this cool bug and wanted to share the news to get help in studying it, as author Oremland suggested.  They submitted the paper to officially get the word out.  But then they needed to find a “good reason” to have been studying arsenic microbes and NASA decided this was a good opportunity to reinvigorate its reputation of performing “useful science” so called a press conference.  You know where it goes from here.

All that is pure speculation – but it probably isn’t too far from the truth.  Maybe I’m being too kind, but I really doubt that the researchers or NASA had any ill-intentions.  They simply lost control, and the following shitstorm took off.

We can scoff at them all we like: “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, my ass!”  But it’s really not so different from my lab publishing a paper with the headline, “KEY FACTOR IN CELL AGING UNCOVERED” when, really, we just discovered a factor, and we don’t even know if it’s key.

The idea of “useful science” also dampens my feelings about science: SCIENCE IS COOL!  Longing to pry up the corners of current knowledge isn’t enough: we can’t just look, but have to reveal a direct outcome.  But if we don’t allow ourselves even to look because of various purpose-based limitations, we could be missing out on something FUCKING AWESOME!

I’m just rambling now – and am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

  • Does purpose-driven science lead to better science or more innovation?
  • Are there ways of judging research as worthy (e.g. for funding purposes) without having to provide a direct purpose?
  • How should the media change its model for covering stories?  Should every study that comes out get attention, or should we wait for more details and provide more review-like coverage?
  • Would larger, field-based studies dampen competition?  Would this help or hurt scientific progress?

Etc. etc.  If you made it this far, thank you, xox, Hannah.

Written by Hanner

December 16, 2010 at 12:08 pm

12 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Asem, Hannah Waters. Hannah Waters said: New post: Purpose in scientific research (Q: are these ramblings the worst decision I've ever made?) […]

  2. That’s fucking awesome Hannah! Keep up the non-applied thinking…

    Rob Mutch

    December 16, 2010 at 4:06 pm

  3. Nice post. There’s quite a lot on my blog relevant to the issues you raise, including an speech by Colin Blakemore from 1998 that is still very relevant (see 14th October), a piece by me on Science and Journalism (15th Sept) and a bit of a rant about how reward structures have damaged science (6th August). see
    My own view is that good science is driven by intellectual curiosity, and not done because someone wants to embellish their c.v. or tick some boxes that a bureaucrat has designed. Sadly, though, our funding often depends on people who just don’t get it.

    Dorothy Bishop

    December 17, 2010 at 10:52 am

  4. Great post, I’m glad I stayed till the end.

    Research is about diving into the unknown. When there’s a purpose involved, the scientist loses sight of the possibilities and tends to think inside the box more often. I think there’s great value in non-purpose-driven science in that it allows researchers to manufacture new ideas/theories that wouldn’t have arisen in the confines of a purpose.
    Like you said, “If I find a cool mutation that alters the epigenome of my yeastie beasties and it’s not related to the aging process, I will not be following up on that project.” You may have just found the cure to some disease, but due to the limits of your grant (your purpose), it falls back into a blackhole of purpose-driven research left for someone else to find. As Dorothy said above, some people just don’t get it.

    Keep up the good writing Hannah!


    December 17, 2010 at 12:19 pm

  5. Of course the real problem with only “research for a purpose” is it depends on scientists and their funders being right about what their purpose should be and how best to pursue it. I imagine most folks would think studying those bacteria in sulfuric hot springs was not terribly “useful”, but without that we wouldn’t have found Taq polymerase, the the foundation of PCR and thus virtually all of the major genetic discoveries of the past decades. NASA kicked out a ridiculous number of inventions in the interests of space flight research that wound up with tons of side uses on Earth completely unrelated to their original research goals. I can see the logic of concentrating on “practical” research topics with funding, but blue-sky stuff is worth investigating too because by definition you don’t know what you might find and what “purposes” you might satisfy without intending to originally.


    December 17, 2010 at 1:08 pm

  6. Scientists are a segment of the general population that are cursed with extra curiosity, but often blessed with the opportunities to pursue their passions. Those of us engaged in biochemistry and molecular biology are carrying on the traditions of the world explorers over the millennia, but it is in the realm of the cell and molecules that we make our discoveries about nature. The value of basic research is well understood amongst us, and it is extensively practiced within the scientific community. For most of us, the intellectual satisfaction is sufficient to drive us on.

    However, the bulk of the grant funding for biochemistry and molecular biology research comes from government and charitable agencies that are dedicated to improving human health. As a consequence out of necessity, most biomedical researchers make insincere overtures in their grant applications that their proposed work has strong practical outcomes. Moreover, the vast majority of biomedical research is in fact supported by industry, which is mandated by its shareholders to ensure an economic return. Because most basic research is being performed in the guise of applied research, the actual performance of so called targeted biomedical research for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases has been extremely poor in terms of new tests and cures. This has created an atmosphere of disappointment from the general public that keeps giving and gets very little in return.

    I just wish that there was a lot more honesty and accountability in biomedical research amongst the stake holders. Basic research should be encouraged and strongly funded for its own sake. Organizations that are supposed to be dedicated to health care should actually do so and support both academic and industrial scientists that are committed to this challenge.

    S. Pelech - Kinexus

    December 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  7. […] Purpose in scientific research, blog post from Culturing Science, discussing how the grants system forces scientists to think within the box of their current research, unable to follow interesting discoveries […]

  8. […] Purpose in scientific research […]

  9. Very helpful post!!! Thanks


    December 23, 2010 at 6:18 am

  10. I think this is a very good post, and, to add to it, I think the bigger issue with the NASA finding and much of purpose-driven scientific research is the tacking on of completely useless, meaningless, but catchy adages: (“life as we know it completely redefined!”) after discoveries.

    Not only are such statements or nebulous theoretical conclusions never, as you post, the catalysts for scientific research, they are also completley un-graspable and generally meaningless save for their media-induced hype value for the public.

    Shortly after the arsenic discovery, my co-workers kept telling me: “This is so exciting!!! Life as we know it is just completely redefined!” When I pressed them to detail to me precisely what that statement meant, they were at a loss and just kept saying “You can’t deny that redefining life is insignificant!” Yes, but that is a purely theoretical offshoot of an important discovery, a jump to a generalized and inductive reasoning from which you cannot then deduct anything practical or grasp-able.

    My biggest problem with coverage of these discoveries isn’t the jump to conclusions that occurs or even pop-sciencey type of reporting, but rather the rapid and blind inductive reasoning that only has a popular and not practical or scientific value.


    January 14, 2011 at 6:21 am

  11. Thoughtful enough; spare me the profanities.

    Zing Ling

    November 18, 2011 at 5:15 am

  12. […] Hannah Waters. Dec 16 2010. Purpose in scientific research. Culturing Science. […]

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