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In defense of curiosity

duck-picture[1]Basic science research projects often become political punching bags, trotted out during budget talks as examples of frivolous spending of taxpayer money. Targets of the mockery can vary so much from season to season that it’s hard to keep track of what’s considered wasteful in a given year, but the tone is usually the same — a headline without context. The science of duck penises? Parisian fruit-fly research? Moth pheromones? Really?

Now, a researcher who studies duck penises has spoken out, penning a powerful argument in defense of oddball science driven by curiosity in the journal BioScience.

Patricia Brennan is a research scientist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies the bizarre and fascinating sexual battle that occurs between male and female ducks when they mate, with genitalia that can seem at war with each other. A male duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew, and a female duck’s vagina winds in the opposite direction. Her work became the butt of political jokes when a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study duck penises attracted the attention of a conservative news website. Brennan found herself in the somewhat unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses, and saw a need for greater engagement with the public.

There is a huge zeitgeist for research that translates existing knowledge into cures, treatments, and technologies. That’s in part because it’s easy to explain the relevance to the public — it might cure Alzheimer’s or cancer or lead to a technology that transforms society and creates jobs. Who could argue against those lofty goals?

But the idea that marshalling existing knowledge into products will solve the biggest problems facing society is naive, Brennan argues. Translational research is essential, but it is just the top of the pyramid. And that pyramid depends on a large foundation of basic research that provides the surprising insights and knowledge that can translate into important advances.

Click here to read more from this February 28, 2014 Boston Globe article by Carolyn Johnson.

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