This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

For the benefit of humanity

I FIND that I have to explain, fairly frequently, what it is that I am doing in PhDland. This is fantastic: it is great that people are interested. But just as frequently, people ask me why. More specifically, they ask to what end am I conducting my experiment? What benefit does it have for people?

This question troubles me and I think it troubles many scientists. Look at enough journal papers, no matter how disparate, and you will notice a trend: the final paragraph of the discussion of many, many papers often seems to have a loosely worded, research council-pleasing vague suggestion that the study in question might, in some way, be applied to humans. Search for many scientific terms, even highly specialist and unrelated terms, and chances are you'll come across something that mentions Parkinson's disease or cancer, often, perhaps, because the authors feel they have to. Newspapers do it too. There'll be a study in mice or flies and, sooner or later, the journalist will give in to temptation or the standard framework of a science report and bring humans into the picture. It is mightily tempting and I've been there myself. But do scientists really have a benefit to mankind in mind? More importantly, does their study need to benefit mankind to be justified?

Firstly, I need to be honest. I cannot tell you what I am studying. That's not because I am doing something unethical - far from it. What I am doing is complicated and, because of the nature of science, confidential. I can't publish here what I am doing lest others cotton on. My point doesn't really require me to explain what I am doing, but, to provide some kind of background, I am working on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, made famous in biology by Thomas Hunt Morgan, currently working on genetics and cell biology and interested in the nervous system. What I am not doing is trying to cure Alzheimer's, but this explanation will have to suffice in certain circles.

But what relevance could working on flies possibly have for humans? The argument I would like to present is this: why should it have any relevance at all?

Science is fascinating. Science is also very important. It defines much of how we live, from technology to food production to medicine. In many ways it is also relevant to the decisions we have to make in the future, such as with understanding climate change. Every once in a while science presents a truly groundbreaking study to the world and, no matter whether it changes our lives or not, it fills us with wonder. The fuss around the Large Hadron Collider was one of wonder, even though our knowledge about the Higgs boson does not affect our daily routines or wellbeing. Big experiments are exciting. Science is great.

Think back to school. Much of the science you learnt back then is anecdotal. It doesn't help you live your life. Why is the sky blue? Who cares? Well, nobody... but oddly, we like knowing. We like knowing how stuff works and, if we don't know, we like to ask probing questions, even into seemingly insignificant things.  My own eureka moment was when somebody explained to me how the DNA double helix works. I was captivated - not because I could immediately think of human applications of this knowledge or ethical consequences to our understanding, but because it all made perfect sense and yet was beautifully simple. Such revelations often make me utter a silent 'wow' under my breath.

True, when working with controversial materials such as embryos and stem cells an ethical approach is necessary and a benefit to people should be the focus. We can't play God and we never should: some things should be left alone. But outside of this, why do people think it peculiar that thousands study fruit flies, nematode worms or sea slugs, rather than humans?

Charles Darwin, when writing the original On the Origin of Species, shied away from talking about the controversial place of humans in his theory of transmutation by natural selection, but this was the one thing people wanted to know about. To paraphrase T H Huxley (as according to a seminar I attended recently): "I don't care about sponges, tell me about humans". But the sponges are fascinating in their own right, and they tell us an awful lot.

The Big Bang - knowledge that has no immediately apparent benefit to mankind: fascinating. Spiders being named after David Bowie: curious, and of no benefit to us whatsoever, but cool. Space - the final frontier: awesome. And who can deny the appeal of wildlife documentaries?

Science throws up a whole collection of tremendous titbits of information. I say that studies don't need to have a human-centred goal, because that would remove the possibility of knowing so much more about our world - and, who knows, maybe one day down the line there will be an indirect benefit to people. Particle physics, for example, uncovered positrons, which we now use in medical scanning.

As a further example of how superfluous science can be exciting without being relevant, take the work of Carlos Camara, Juan Escobar, Jonathan Hird and Seth Putterman at UCLA, who have done some remarkable things with a rather mundane household item.

Take a roll of sellotape. Now, enter a very dark room, one in which no light is seeping through the cracks under doors and curtains. Let your eyes adjust, then quickly unwind the sellotape. What happens? You create blue light.

The voltage created by the separation of static charge leads to electrons rushing through the air from the roll to the end of the tape, bumping into air particles on the way and their energy being converted into light. But what would happen if those air particles weren't in the way, and the study were done in a vacuum? To answer this, Putterman and colleagues designed a device to quickly unwind Scotch tape in a vacuum, and what they observed was astounding: they produced X-rays, enough to record the image of a finger on film.

I am not studying Alzheimer's. A cure might come from my work, indirectly, some time in the future (although this is highly unlikely, what with not studying Alzheimer's), but for now I am trying to solve a different mystery, bit by bit, because it is interesting.

Should science have a benefit to humanity? Yes, but only the gift of a greater understanding of all of the components of our world. A modest ambition, I suppose.


  1. I like this thought about science. Particularly about the beauty of some scientific ideas. I love the beauty of science and to an extent engineering which can just be wonderful. The same applies to logic and maths. I love them and I love their beauty and what they tell us about the world and what they have in and of themselves that is almost magical.

    Unfortunately for me I was subject to fair bit of gender normativity so did not pursue these ideas and am now fascinating by my work area where there is so much that is unexpected (as any people focused role (just now I was interrupted by a query from a student) but yeah. Science is AMAZING and is such in its own right (though the way it has impacted on humans and how we live our lives is pretty cool too)

  2. Great post. Most people I know thought I was going to be able to cure their arthritis or sports injuries from my PhD work. I also found that describing my work under the umbrella of "cartilage repair" didn't really do justice to the finer nuances of the research. But I've now got used to the fact that most of the people I'm close to have no idea what I did with 3 years of my life!

    I found that I needed those many papers about research with no obvious financial or medical benefit, and I imagine those kinds of papers will one day not exist as universities get more business oriented and funding goes to the studies with a clear clinical benefit.

    The balance between funding research that might one day cure a disease and research that is "just" interesting is obviously (and rightly) biased in one direction. But they do both have a role and, as with most issues of resource allocation (NICE as one example), it's a delicate balance. I know I wouldn't want to be making the funding choices!

    But if you can't do "just for the sake of it" science research in a university, then where can you do it?

  3. Thanks Siobhan and Beth. I certainly wouldn't want to make the decisions either, I appreciate how hard it must be. But a world without seemingly superfluous science would be a world without useful coincidences and acquired knowledge. Hurrah for science!

    Can I ask Beth what you were doing about 'cartilage repair'?