Next semester I will be working in a lab studying kairomone-induced parasitic resistance and tolerance in the Trinidadian Guppy. When I tell people about my research project, I often get mixed reviews. Some praise the fact that I have a real lab position as an undergrad, others smirk at the apparent uselessness of current scientific endeavors. However, I do not think that the latter attitude is warranted. Science is about pushing the frontier of knowledge. And when you attempt to move the frontier, you necessarily do not know what is on the other side. We often cannot predict where the discoveries made in the process will take us. The path to knowledge often emphasizes our level of ignorance – from the inception of the journey onward.
Scientific organizations have begun to acknowledge and reward great discoveries which stem from seemingly “mundane” or “unpractical” research. The Golden Goose Award, founded by a number of leading scientific societies, specifically recognizes research conducted without purposeful application that has nevertheless led to significant health and/or economic benefits. One of the awardees was Jon Eng, who studied the poisonous saliva of the Gila monster lizard. He found that it could stimulate insulin production, which ultimately led to the development of the Type II Diabetes drug, Exenatide.
Former Wisconsin senator William Proxmire once mocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for providing $250,000 of taxpayer money to investigate the sex life of the screwworm fly, a livestock parasite. However, that very same research found that females only mate once, while males mate many times. By creating a host of sterile male worms and releasing them into the wild, scientists were able to eradicate the pest, reportedly saving the livestock industry $20 billion. An investment well spent. Proxmire eventually apologized.
The researchers working on lizard saliva and on screwworm flies had no idea that there was going to be any practical development coming out of their work. That’s research. That is the nature and beauty of making discoveries.
With federal budget constraints, the fate of funding for scientific research is continually up in the air. We must recognize that some of the greatest discoveries come from the most unexpected places, and that we must continue to fund all avenues of research. Funding is an investment in the unknown. We cannot afford to leave these areas of research untapped. If we fail to nurture the streams of discovery, scientific progress will stagnate. Our current ignorance of potential streams should not hinder future scientific research – whether it delves into fly sex, lizard saliva, parasitic resistance in guppies, or anything in between.