Monday, May 30, 2016

NEWSHOUR ESSAY - For the Sake of Knowing

"Why research for the pure sake of knowing is enough" PBS NewsHour 5/25/2016


SUMMARY:  Duke University biologist Sheila Patek has faced criticism from lawmakers over her research into mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants, with some calling her government-funded studies a waste of taxpayer money.  But according to Patek, not only do her findings have important practical applications, but scientific inquiry is most fruitful when knowledge is sought for its own sake, not to justify budgets.

SHEILA PATEK, Biologist, Duke University:  I expressed the wonder of these discoveries, as well as their fundamental significance to physics, evolution, and the limits of current engineering capabilities.

A prominent lawyer from Nigeria who was in the audience that day approached me a few days later.  Her first words to me were, “Your research disgusted me with such waste, studying trivial and useless problems.”

In that moment, she had voiced my most vulnerable thoughts:  That the science to which I would dedicated much of my life was actually pointless.

But she added, “I realized something important, that science is about discovery, not just about solving human problems.”

She then spoke a phrase that has stuck with me over the years.  She said, “I want what you have for my country.”

In her country, Nigeria, there was simply no infrastructure for this type of discovery-based research.  In fact, many solutions to humans’ problems began in a scientist’s laboratory.  Did you know that some of the most significant medical breakthroughs for the human brain began with research on sea slugs?
However, engineering-related applications are not the primary reason we do this research.

The nature of discovery is that it is impossible to anticipate what you will find.  That is discovery.  Discovery-based research is most fruitful when new knowledge is sought for its own sake.

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