In defence of basic research

This is my first stab at blogging, so be kind. Today, I’m going to write about basic research (understanding patterns in the world around us) as opposed to applied research (setting out to solve specific problems). Right, I expect that most of the people who read this are either interested in the science generally, and perhaps a subset of these are interested in the kind of science I do (the evolutionary ecology of infectious disease). Today’s post will be about talking to people who have just a passing interest – say, a person you’ve just been introduced to. Let’s call him Dave, as everybody has met a Dave.

“Hi, I’m Dave.”

“Hi Dave, I’m Stu.” Now comes the obvious next question.

“What do you do Stu?” Oh crap, how much detail do I go into? I’ll keep it light, as he probably doesn’t care – I can always go into more detail.

“I’m a research scientist – a biologist. What about you?”

“I’m an X. So what kind of biology do you do?”

“I study how diseases change over space and time; why some individuals are more likely to get sick than others, and why some strains of disease are more harmful than others. I also look at how these things evolve over time.” I feel ok with this response; it’s enough to get the point across. Dave now asks the killer question.

“Which disease do you work on?” He has assumed I work on human disease. I don’t – I study a freshwater crustacean and its sterilizing bacterial parasite. The rest of this conversation is me being defensive and him nodding politely. He tells me about his job and the conversation moves on.

I failed. I failed to convince Dave why my research is important despite it not having an immediate impact on human health (it is not applied research). My research does have relevance to human systems in that understanding general patterns of how the incidence and severity of infectious disease vary is important. Basic research is a fundamental pre-requisite for applied research. Faraday, Coulomb, Ampere et al. laid all the foundations for understanding electricity long before it was useful in any way. So why not just do the research that leads to ‘useful’ outcomes? Well, we don’t always know what those ‘useful’ outcomes may be – the societal and economic value of science can only be assessed in light of current knowledge. A common question is “what are the practical uses of this research?” See the below example.


This is from:

So where am I going with this?

Now it’s easy to make fun of Fox news, but this is a very common mind-set amongst the general public and policymakers alike. And that is our fault as scientists; we fail to persuade. That earlier conversation with Dave was an example of this failure. If  funding for basic research is cut, the accumulation of knowledge about the way the world works will slow. This will constrain our ability to develop technology that benefits us. Also, knowing more of how the world works has its own intrinsic value. Convincing the Daves of this world of the value of basic research is of immense importance. This Dave could be a new friend in a pub, or he could craft national science policy. In any case, we should convince our society to value basic science.

I now have a different response to Dave’s question of “What kind of biology do you do?”

“I study general patterns of disease – what determines who get sick and how sick they get, and how these things vary over space and time. I’m not just interested in human disease; I want to understand general patterns. I use a freshwater crustacean and its bacterial parasite, as this allows me to do big experiments testing how different environmental factors affect disease and then see how the results relate to patterns in wild populations. Whilst I’m not looking for cures or anything like that, my research will hopefully be useful to those who are trying to manage diseases of humans, crops, livestock etc. Understanding the basic patterns is important.”

This is the best I have so far, but I’m looking to improve it.