Elevator Pitches and Basic vs. Applied Research

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I frame the research I do, and, especially, how I frame my research when I talk with a non-scientific audience. More specifically, I’ve noticed that when I’m giving my “elevator pitch” about my research I tend to give a much more applied spin when I’m talking to a lay audience. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t be doing that. Am I missing out on a prime opportunity to talk about the importance of basic research?*

I started thinking about this more this summer, when my lab devoted a couple of weeks of lab meetings to working on elevator pitches. We spent the first week working on elevator pitches for other scientists – for example, to give to people we had just met at the ESA meetings, or, for the REU students, pitches they could give to their professors when they got back to their home institutions. We then spent the second week on pitches for a more general audience – for example, to give to your uncle at a party** (note that I didn’t say your grandmother!) or to a fisherman while out sampling***. Something I noticed from this exercise is that I focused much more on some of the applied aspects of my research (e.g., how infectious diseases are influenced by invasive species) than on the more basic aspects (e.g., how host populations evolve in response to parasitism) that are at least as much of a focus of my research.

But, of course, by focusing on the applied aspects of my work, I am feeding into the idea that work with applied implications is what is important. Really, I am most fundamentally motivated by basic questions, though I always like when there are applied implications of the work, too. Should I be using my general audience elevator pitch to highlight basic research? My former postdoc Stu Auld has updated his elevator pitch to better explain the importance of his basic research. (His post also gets bonus points for including an excellent graphic demonstrating the unintended applied benefits of basic research.) There was also this Slate piece from last year by Patricia Brennan, in which she defends basic research (motivated by attacks from US conservatives on the funding of her research on duck genitalia). My hope would be that, by updating my elevator pitch, it might spur conversations on the value of basic research****.

There are many benefits of basic research, of course. One fundamental motivating factor for many of us, myself included, is simply wanting to understand how the natural world works. (I often argue in seminars that, given the numerical dominance of parasites, we can only understand the ecology and evolution of natural systems if we understand the role of parasites therein.) But that can be a harder sell when I’m talking to my family members who all have very practical professions. (My mother is a nurse and my father is a retired fireman. It doesn’t get more practical than that!)

So, instead, I should probably start focusing more on the very important – and more effective, most likely – argument that basic research often leads to work of applied importance in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. NSF has a list of 50 NSF-funded innovations that are now part of our everyday lives. There are many examples that are more specific to ecology as well. The Edmondson lab at the University of Washington noticed cyanobacteria in Lake Washington during routine sampling, and their years of basic research on the lake allowed them to document a link between decreased water quality and sewage inputs. This work (along with work by others, especially David Schindler) had a dramatic impact on lake water quality in North America. More recently, routine sampling of Lake Mendota in Wisconsin revealed that the problematic invasive species Bythotrephes had invaded. Lake Mendota wasn’t predicted to be a lake that Bythotrephes would invade – and certainly wasn’t predicted to be one of the first inland lakes in Wisconsin that would be invaded – so this is really important information from an applied standpoint. And basic research on the ecology and systematics of frogs in the tropics ended up being crucial in terms of recognizing, documenting, and quantifying the devastating sweep of the chytrid parasite Bd through tropical frog populations. (link to a pdf of a different article on the same topic)

So, maybe I should update my elevator pitch. I usually say that my research asks why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. That is a pretty accurate summary of work in my lab. But, like Stu said in his blog post, once disease is mentioned, people tend to think I work on human infectious diseases, which I don’t.***** Perhaps my new elevator pitch could be something like “My research asks why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. I don’t work on human diseases, though. Instead, I work on very small animals that live in lakes. Understanding disease in those animals can help us understand basic aspects of infectious diseases. And, since the animals I work on are key links in aquatic food webs, it also helps us understand lakes better.” That still doesn’t really hammer home the importance of basic research, so maybe it needs more work. At the same time, I think it’s a pretty accurate summary of what I work on.

When you give your elevator pitch (or party summary) to non-scientists, do you focus more on basic or applied work? For people who do both kinds of work, do you try to focus more on one or the other?

*I could make similar statements about how much I focus on ecological vs. evolutionary aspects of my research. When talking with people I don’t know, I tend to focus more on the ecological aspects than the evolutionary ones. Evolution remains a frustratingly controversial topic in the US. By being conflict averse, am I missing a key opportunity for dialog on evolution? Maybe, but I think feelings tend to be so strong on the topic of evolution that my elevator pitch is unlikely to have any effect or spark meaningful dialog on the topic. (There was a lot of debate about whether anything was gained by the recent debate between scientist Bill Nye and evangelist Ken Ham.)

**As I said in the comments on the party post, my father – a New York City firefighter (now retired) – loved telling other firefighters than he daughter was a limnologist. He loved this because none of them knew what limnology was, and he’d get to explain it to them. His explanation? “You know marine biology? Well someone needs to do that in lakes.” Perhaps I should outsource my elevator pitches to him. He clearly has a knack for it! (Ethan White suggested a second career in science communication for my dad.)

***This assumes the fisherman is not a scientist, which is clearly not always an accurate assumption. My PhD advisor, Alan Tessier, was out setting up an experiment on a lake in Southwest Michigan one day, when a fisherman started asking him about what he was doing. Alan gave him kind of short responses, since he was busy trying to get the experiment set up – a typical response we’d give in that sort of situation is that we were doing an experiment looking at the little animals that fish eat. After a few quick exchanges, the fisherman said, “So, are you using a randomized complete block design?” Turned out he worked at Pharmacia in Kalamazoo and knew plenty about science and experimental design!

****I think it’s interesting that, in math, the split isn’t “basic” vs. “applied” research but, rather, “pure” vs. “applied”. Pure sounds so much better than basic, doesn’t it?

*****Yet. If I thought there was something I could do to reduce disease transmission in daycares, I’d quit working on Daphnia in a heartbeat – especially if the disease whose transmission I could reduce was the ever-dreaded norovirus!

30 thoughts on “Elevator Pitches and Basic vs. Applied Research

  1. Maybe not a direct comment on your post but more something that was triggered by it and by Stu Auld’s post.

    I always feel quite a bit exasperated when people, laymen and scientists alike, tell me that it is my responsibility as a scientist to convince the taxpaying public of the value of my basic research.

    First, I am not so sure there is such a clear dichotomy between applied and basic science as is always implicitly assumed. The methods and concepts are the same and even the questions are usually rather similar. Granted, laboratory microcosms may not help directly in answering how to control that particular pest outbreak or protect that one species, but they often inform you what is going on and what not. Just look at the Red Scale work and Californian frog work of Bill Murdoch and Cheryl Briggs for examples.

    Second, and more to the point, is that nobody asks a firefighter or policemen to defend spending money on the essential community service they provide. That persuasion is not their job, and would only distract from what they are supposed to do. I often feel the same as a scientist. My job is to do research because society already agreed that paying people so they have the time and resources to dig deep into scientific questions is a good and important thing to do. For all kinds of reasons which have been discussed on this blog before. (and I don’t have problems including arts, philosophy, social sciences etc. here). When politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and other public figures claim scientists should defend what they are doing and why that is important for society they too often have an agenda that has nothing to do with science. And that is what is damaging the public trust of science and what creates an anti-scientific attitude in society. It is not the perceived and often only alleged arrogance and aloofness of scientists. No, I really think it is mainly the politicians and other public figure’s job to stand up for the funding of research activities and especially of research activities without an immediate economic or ideological benefit in sight.

    Note, that I really feel awe for scientists that can explain (and thus defend) their research to non-scientists (and non-expert scientists, too) and I don’t think scientists shouldn’t do it. They should, if they like it and if they are good at it. I also do it myself from time to time, and it is a lot of fun. But not every one of us is good at it or likes to do it, or has the time and resources to do it. And it is just not our job to defend what we are doing and convince society to pay for it. Research is simply an important societal (and human) activity.

    • I guess I view it as that societies routinely re-evaluate what they spend money on, so just because a society decided in the past that something was worth funding, that doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. And, given that many people do not immediately see why basic science is a good and important thing to do (to use your phrase), I think we do need to spend some time justifying that. Firefighters and police officers don’t need to do that to nearly the same extent, perhaps, but that is because their societal benefits are more obvious, I think.

      That said, I agree with you that not every scientist needs to justify why basic science is valuable. And, really, if someone is bad at justifying it, they might do more harm than good! So, I agree that not everyone’s elevator pitch needs to address the importance of basic research. But I think that the more people who can effectively articulate the value of basic research, the better.

  2. How does this elevator pitch work for you?

    — People like me make the raw material (like different types of Lego building blocks) that others then put together in differnt combinations to make stuff we all directly use (the Death Star). —

    The blocks in and of themselves may not be very useful in daily life, but without them you can’t build the stuff that makes everyday life possible.
    It is not possible to predict how someone might put different blocks together to build something useful. But, having those blocks available increases the options we have in how we creatively combine them.

    Pivoting a little, elevator pitches should be tailored to your audience and what you believe they are receptive to. That is hard work, but I have found that developing a variety of such pitches, one slightly different than the other, has helped bring clarity to my understanding of what I do. It has helped me see my work from incremental angles.

    Additionally, it is the scientist’s duty to convey the value of science to the lay public. It would do well for some scientists to recognize we don’t have infinite resources and investigations must be prioritized. Not all basic research has the same value. And, some applied research may be more meaningful at this time. If you’re using public resources, then the public has a right to know of the potential value of your work – now or in the future. We don’t like scientists telling us to have faith.

    Best regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar
    Twitter: https://twitter.com/shrikale
    Blog: http://shrikale.wordpress.com

    • I like it! And I had no idea my research might help build the Death Star! 😉

      I really like your last paragraph. As I said above, I don’t think every scientist needs to do this — especially since some might be particularly bad at it. But we definitely need lots of scientists who can help convey the message.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Related to the elevator pitch is a talk that Robert Krulwich gave at Cal Tech. It is about telling stories and the need for scientists to see telling stories effectively as an integral part of their job, whether the story is about “pure” research or “applied” research. I see an elevator pitch as the shortest story about what you do. So, kudos to you for taking what some might consider to be valuable research time to train your students how to tell really short stories. Krulwich’s talk is entertaining and informative and can be found here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91852-tell-me-a-story/

  4. Meg, I do the same thing, i.e., emphasize applications more when talking to a lay audience. Your question of whether we need to do this is a great one. I guess it depends on your goal and your audience in the elevator or at the party or whatever. Focusing on the basic research side might tell the audience more about you, since you have to explain why you personally find this stuff interesting, and I, for one, love to hear people talk about their passions. Of course, not everyone necessarily likes to hold forth in this way (though Jeremy certainly does!). I submit that, in the context of dating, an interesting filter to apply to prospective S.O.’s might be, “Can I have a good conversation with this person about my research that does NOT focus on practical applications?”

  5. There’s another important distinction – the distinction between question and system. These are two different approaches. Asked what one does, one can either answer: “I study question X…which I have attempted in systems Y and Z” or one can answer “I study system X in which I have asked the questions Y and Z”. If your system is a model organism such as drosophila, you tend to give the former answer because it’s the questions that drive the science and species merely happens to be a convenient one for studying it. Yet if you want to understand a particular species – what might have been called organismic biology at some point – then getting to know the system is primary and only then can the sensible questions to ask even emerge.

    I think there is clear need for both approaches in science. But am I right my sense that today the scientific community tends to emphasize the study question over the study system, to the detriment of gaining deep understanding about the latter (think about grant proposals or how one pitches a job application). I work on elephants, and up until now I have always answered the question “What do you do” with “I study elephants” because that’s really what I want to understand – all things relevant to this complex species which takes a long time to study and understand. People are generally excited whenever they hear that and always want to know more – scientist or non-scientist. But I am increasingly aware that in professional contexts what I should be saying is something like “I study the dynamics of networks in complex social systems….and I happen to study elephants BECAUSE…” and then justify the system. I have read papers in which people make this upside-down claim in their introductions, as though the system were an incidental choice to fit the question, rather than honestly declaring their motivation. Probably they feel it’s required to get it published. This just seems silly. What I find frustrating is that what people clearly get excited or motivated about can’t be honestly admitted because let’s face it – not every system need be a model or “ideal system to study X”. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else feels the same way.

    • I have an old post and good comment thread on model systems in ecology: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/ecologists-should-quit-making-things-hard-for-themselves-and-focus-more-on-model-systems/

      And while the distinction you draw between “question first” and “system first” work is a standard one, Meg has talked about how she feels like she’s some of both (sorry, can’t find the links, thought sure she had a post on this…)

      • “Isn’t some good answer, in some system, better than no good answer at all?”

        I’d say it’s a definitive no. It seems as though you’re advocating for studying mainly model systems whereas I think there should be a balance of both types of endeavors – even when it comes to famous model systems like fruit flies. Michael Dickinson, who studies how flies fly, remarked that they are a great model system – for flies.
        I think there are legitimate reasons for both approaches, that we shouldn’t trade one for the other under the assumption that the knowledge gained is somehow better, more complete, clean etc.

      • Nowhere did I say that ecologists should *only* study model systems.

        I’m confused why you would say that there are legitimate reasons for research in model and non-model systems, while also answering the question posed in my post with a definitive “no”. If you really do think it’s better to have *no* good answer to a question then to have an answer from a model system, then why do any work in model systems at all? After all, if answers obtained from model systems are of negative value *even when no other good answers are available*, then surely they’re of even less value when good answers from non-model systems *are* available. Which implies that answers from model systems are *always* of negative value. Perhaps you can clarify?

        You seem to be assuming that model systems necessarily are unrepresentative of other systems in all respects. I think that’s false. Sometimes they’re representative of other systems, sometimes not. It’s for this reason that the discussion thread on that post talks a lot about how many model systems ecology might need, and how it probably needs more than, say, genetics.

        I would deny that we should *only* study model systems when they are representative of all (or most, or even many) other systems of interest. Perhaps this is where we disagree?

      • Yes, I am largely also in agreement with Meg’s post. I disagree with the phrasing that some good answer in some system is better than no good answer at all because it is a false dilemma that is unnecessarily constraining. It suggests that looking under the light already shines is preferable to attempting to shine the light somewhere else. If you get no good answer at all by seeking elsewhere, it challenges the status quo, and compels you to develop new methods, tools, techniques models etc. I stay away from making statements in terms of absolutes – which is also why I don’t disagree that there is utility in model systems. But too much emphasis on models or artificially bending the slant of one’s work to construe it within this mode of thinking limits the way we think – and the value placed in certain types of endeavors. If there weren’t system-based people maintaining conducting system-based work (like LTERs for instance) there would be no opportunity for question-based scientists to conduct the work they do. We need both.

      • It doesn’t sound like we disagree that much. My remarks were directed against those (and they do exist; Carpenter 1996 Ecology is one of them) who deny that work in microcosms (one particular example of a model system) is valuable. Ever. Under any circumstances. That point of view is the one I refuted by noting that a good answer from a model system is better than no good answer at all.

  6. Hi Meg, When I give my talks to lay audiences – I mainly talk about my work in urban green spaces and roundabouts – I emphasize how it was an interest in biogeography and teaching the concepts of species-area relationships etc, that led on to the applied work i.e. how to make green spaces better places for biodiversity

  7. “When you give your elevator pitch (or party summary) to non-scientists, do you focus more on basic or applied work? For people who do both kinds of work, do you try to focus more on one or the other?”

    I do research in both areas, but in talks with non-scientists mainly focus on the applied aspects, e.g. conservation of biodiversity, particularly pollinators, and the value of ecosystem services.

    However if I get the impression that the person I’m talking to is really interested in the subject I’ll discuss basic research, but often give it a Darwin spin, i.e. “Darwin was interested in how flowers evolve and we’re following in his footsteps”. Seems to go down well. Unless they are creationists 🙂

    And speaking of them, I don’t avoid talking about evolution, but then it’s perhaps less controversial in the UK than it is in parts of the USA. Not that there are no debates – you may have seen this, but just in case: http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/wrestling-the-oiled-serpent/

  8. I find when I’m talking to non-scientists -most often with those in business, economics or policy- about my project I tend to focus just on the “basic” research. This will lead them to inevitably say “Yeah, but whats the point?”

    This provides a great platform to tell them about the importance of “blue skies research”. I think its important to inform absolutely EVERYONE because we live in a democracy. It is our duty as scientists to do-away with this ignorance; voters must make informed decisions. Furthermore, because of the inherently uncertain return on investment, blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research. My conversation usually starts like this:

    “There was a scientist who loved being in the Alps when he wasn’t in the lab, his name was John Tyndall*, he asked the question “Why is the sky blue?”. He discovered that when we look towards the sun at sunset, we see red and orange colours because the blue light has been scattered out and away from the line of sight. Now this wouldn’t seem to have any direct benefit for society but this principle has led to the development of ultramicroscopes, which allow scientists to observe particles that are invisible even with the aid of a traditional microscope. And did you know that lasers started in the 60’s as a scientific curiosity, antibiotics, and more efficient magnetic chips have made the iphone you have in your pocket possible.”

    Curiosity-driven research with no immediate application or goal is what has primarily led to science’s greatest discoveries as well as our high standard of living. It is what has led to the ascendancy of American science during the twentieth century. The value of acquiring knowledge “for its own sake” was held by the ancient Greeks, continued through the scientific revolution and should be encouraged today as well.

    As a side note I think practicing an elevator pitch is a great idea which is why I submitted my proposal to the “3 minute thesis competition” at the University of Calgary.

    * The term derives from Julius Comroe, who explained in 1976 how scientific discoveries often arise from tortuous curiosity-driven paths rather than a direct goal-driven route.

    • I agree that talking about the unforeseen practical benefits of basic/blue skies research is probably the most effective argument. Your pitch sounds good to me!

      • If we’re using a utilitarian justification, isn’t it also important to think about the efficiency of blue sky research as a route to practical benefits? Listing anecdotes isn’t all that useful because I don’t think anyone could argue that practical benefits don’t exist at all.

        Is there any evidence that curiosity-driven research leads to qualitatively different insights/discoveries/outcomes to goal-orientated research? Because Matthew’s point about pure research being a poor investment (uncertain, useful only in the distant future, generally un-patentable) seems compelling. The government should fund this sort of research to compensate for the market’s failure to invest in it.

    • “Curiosity-driven research with no immediate application or goal is what has primarily led to science’s greatest discoveries”

      How can you know for sure that pure research was the _primary_ driver of science’s greatest discoveries? It seems sometimes that the further you go back, the harder it is to identify the motivator of research. I was thinking of Isaac Newton’s research, and his contributions across every field I can think of were both pure and applied. Even his motivations, in the same publication, were a mixture of fascination and practical problem-solving.

      I don’t want to make this an oppositional issue, but do you think the flow of respect between the pure and applied sides of scientific fields is symmetric?

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