I spoke on the main stage of the March for Science in DC this past weekend. This post contains the text of what I said (as well as the slightly longer version that I originally prepared). I’m also working on posts that talk more about what it was like to prepare for the talk and to give the talk. Hopefully those will be done soon!
If you’re interested in watching the talk, you can see it here at the 1:00:20 mark. (This link will take you directly to the start of the talk if you wait a second (or 10) for it to load.)
I (and all the other speakers) had a 2 minute slot. That’s not a lot of time! Here’s what I said during those 2 minutes:
Hello, I’m Meghan Duffy from the University of Michigan.
1.5 million people die from fungal infections each year, three times the number that die from breast cancer. At present, options for treating these infections are extremely limited. Surprisingly, by studying Daphnia, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes, my lab might have discovered new drugs to treat fungal infections in humans.
My father is a retired New York City firefighter. When I talk about my research, he often asks, “But how is this going to help people?” My answer has tended to be, “it probably won’t, at least not directly”.
I was wrong. Daphnia might teach us how to fight fungal infections in people.
I began studying Daphnia because they are key links in lake food webs. As we studied Daphnia and their parasites, we were surprised to find some chemicals that prevented fungal infections in Daphnia. We are now testing to see if they also work against fungi that cause devastating infections in humans.
This is how basic research works: working on a topic with seemingly no direct relevance to humans can lead to breakthroughs that have enormous, unanticipated impacts.
This isn’t just a story about the value of basic research, though. It’s also a story about the importance of diversity in science. My student who led this research is in a federally supported program that aims to train a more diverse pool of scientists. She is addressing questions that no one thought to ask before, and getting incredibly exciting results.
It’s too early to know if my student’s work will give us the next big drug to treat fungal infections in people, but it is already abundantly clear that science is stronger because of her ideas and her research. To paraphrase Dr. Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan: talent is evenly distributed in society but, at present, opportunity is not. Science will progress further and faster if participation is broad, with people from all backgrounds able to contribute their ideas and talents to science.
Here’s the slightly longer version that I originally prepared. Unfortunately, this one was a bit too long, so I had to cut things down more. But I figured it might be worth including it here, too. The parts that are in blue are the parts that got cut from the final version.
Hello, I’m Meghan Duffy from the University of Michigan.
1.5 million people die from fungal infections each year, three times the number that die from breast cancer. At present, options for treating these infections are limited and becoming even more so due to drug resistance. Surprisingly, by studying Daphnia, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes, my lab might have discovered new drugs to treat fungal infections in humans.
My father is a retired New York City firefighter. When I talk about my research, he often asks, “But how is this going to help people?”, wanting a direct application to human medicine. My answer has tended to be, “it probably won’t, at least not directly”.
I was wrong. Daphnia might be able to teach us how to fight fungal infections in people.
I began studying Daphnia because they are key links in lake food webs, keeping lakes from looking like pea soup. But as we studied Daphnia and their parasites, we were surprised to find some chemicals that prevented fungal infections in Daphnia. We are now testing to see if they also work against fungi that cause devastating infections in humans. We hope that one or more of these chemicals will help reduce the number of people who become seriously ill or die from a fungal infection.
I would not have predicted that research in my lab might lead to an important new medicine for people. But this is how basic research works: working on a topic that seemingly has no direct relevance to humans can sometimes lead to breakthroughs that have enormous, unanticipated impacts.
This isn’t just a story about the value of basic research, though. It’s also a story about the importance of diversity in science. My student who led this research is in a federally supported program that aims to train a more diverse pool of scientists. She is addressing questions that no one thought to ask before, and getting incredibly exciting results. Without her curiosity and her ideas and her talents, this work would not have happened.
It’s too early to know if my student’s work will give us the next big drug to treat fungal infections in people, but it is already abundantly clear that science is stronger because of her ideas and her research. To paraphrase Dr. Mark Schlissel, the physician-scientist president of the University of Michigan: talent is evenly distributed in society but, at present, opportunity is not. Science will progress further and faster if participation is broad, with people from all backgrounds able to contribute their ideas and talents to science.
Thanks for sharing this Meghan! I have a bunch of thoughts and questions:
-That was a *really* good speech, both content and delivery. Without wanting to criticize the speakers I saw at all (giving a good speech is hard!), that was easily the best March For Science speech I’ve seen so far.
-I didn’t really miss most of the bits you had to cut. What do you think?
-“…University of Michigan” [WHOOOOO!!!] 🙂
-“…Daphnia” [WHOOOO!!!] 🙂 (Aside: It’s probably for the best that I wasn’t invited to speak at the March. Because it would’ve gone something like “…Tetrahymena” [crickets]. Or maybe “…the Price equation” [crickets])
-So, how exciting was it to get applause from 40,000 people? I’m guessing it’s going to be a letdown when you go back to teaching Intro Bio in the fall. First year bio students aren’t known for their enthusiastic reaction to applause lines. 😉
-I want to ask you about public support for basic research. My question isn’t one that I’d have expected any 2 minute speech to a rally to address, but it’s one I wanted to ask now that you have more than 2 minutes. 😉 The argument you gave is the standard one, I think: basic research is worth supporting because we’ll stumble across applications. We know the research will have concrete practical benefits down the line, we just don’t know how yet. But I’m not sure that argument is quite right. In fact, there’s plenty of basic research that doesn’t lead to any applications, ever. So the correct version of the argument is more like “basic research is worth supporting because *some fraction of it* will have concrete practical benefits down the line. And since we have no idea which particular basic research projects will pay off in practical terms, we need to support lots of projects, much as buying many lottery tickets increases one’s odds of winning the lottery”. Which when put that way seems like a less compelling argument. Plus, why couldn’t we spend money on *applied* (or at least, “use inspired”) research and also hope to stumble across unanticipated benefits along the way? Bottom line: I’m not sure you were wrong to say to respond to your dad’s question about how your research would benefit people with “Meh, it probably won’t”. Not (just) because those anti-fungal compounds might not turn into useful drugs to treat human fungal infections. But because someone who wins the lottery should not say “I thought playing the lottery wouldn’t pay off for me–I was wrong”.
I initially felt like there was absolutely no way I could cut anything from the longer version. But I think it worked in the shorter form. After realizing I needed to cut it more, it was amazing how straightforward it seemed to cut it. The thing I most wished I could have left in was the explanation about “expecting a direct application to human health”.
Which gets to your last point: yes, I think it’s absolutely true that only some (small) fraction of basic research will end up having concrete practical benefits down the line. I guess I don’t see it being somewhat lottery like as reducing the value of that argument. To me, we need to both have research that will lead to the completely unexpected benefits *and* applied research.
There are two additional criticisms of my argument in favor of basic research (which were raised by people when I practiced my talk):
1. It’s not like we were working on a topic that was totally random. The potential link to human health wasn’t obvious at the outset, but it’s also not like we used a random word generator to come up with our proposal! I added in the line saying why we originally started working on Daphnia to try to make that clear. It would have been nice to explain that a little more.
2. It ignores that there’s some value in all research in simply increasing our knowledge. While I think that is true that there is value in increasing our knowledge, I think that argument will never hold water with my conservative relatives or even my moderate ones. The more moderate ones might agree that there’s some benefit in knowing more, but they would (rightly, in my opinion) argue that, given limited resources, such knowledge isn’t necessarily worth investing in compared to other options (e.g., healthcare).
I will cover this more in my follow up post, but I completely failed to consider that applause would take up time when I practiced my talk. It somehow never occurred to me that people would applaud during the talk. Even if it had, I don’t think it would have occurred to me that they would applaud just at the mention of Michigan! And then, because there was a tight time limit, I was kind of stressed out by people applauding because it was eating up time. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that I was stressed by people applauding!
My hope, in leading up to the talk, was that my ability to talk to a room of 300 would scale by multiple orders of magnitude. I was a whole lot more nervous before the talk than I’ve ever been for a lecture, but, when I was up there, I didn’t really sense how many people were there. It was only afterwards when I saw a picture taken from the stage looking out that I realized just how many people there had been out there!
Yes, I think the common thread with your arguments 1 and 2 is that they’re just not that compelling to anyone not already convinced. Anyone who doesn’t just see it as an intrinsically Good Thing for people to be learning more stuff.
There is fundamental research that’s broadly compelling to the public. But it’s fundamental research that reports “discoveries” that are amazing or wonderful in some way that is easily appreciated on a gut level. Putting an astronaut on the moon or a rover on Mars, for instance. Or discovering some impressive-looking new species of mammal, or a feathered dinosaur fossil. Peter & Andrew’s old guest post for us gets this right, I think: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/03/23/making-waves-can-basic-ecological-research-generate-headlines-and-does-it-matter/ And of course, even with something like NASA’s most publicly-popular and high-profile work there are more than a few people who would say that we can’t afford to be studying Mars when there are people suffering from poverty, oppression, war, and disease here on earth.
One standard response to this is to argue that this is why it’s every researcher’s job to explain their basic research to the public. But the truth is that competition for attention is a zero-sum game and the public already has *way* more opportunities to read and hear about science (and anything else) than anyone ever would or could take advantage of. The world does not lack for stories about basic research that are aimed at the general public.
I just remembered I had a go at arguing for basic research in this old post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/why-do-fundamental-research-in-a-world-with-pressing-applied-problems/. Looking back on it, I still agree with most of it. And still feel like it wouldn’t be all that compelling to anyone not already convinced.
I’ve often thought about the same line of reasoning as Jeremy’s quote
“why couldn’t we spend money on *applied* (or at least, “use inspired”) research and also hope to stumble across unanticipated benefits along the way?”
I think one might hypothesize that basic research is more likely to lead to an understanding of processes and mechanisms which lead to something truly groundbreaking and innovative. In other words, the random variable “magnitude of impact” for basic research has a larger portion of its density at zero, but also a fatter tail. I’m wondering if there is any way to retrospectively test this hypothesis. Recently it was shown that 30% of academic papers resulting from NIH biomedical research grants are later cited in commercial patents
Which shows the importance of applied research. That is a completely different point, but I wonder if by pairing patents and something like earning reports of the companies who filed the patents one might be able to go about testing the hypothesis (comparing NSF grants to NIH grants). Tons of holes in that experimental design of course.
My gut instinct is that you’re more likely to stumble across something really important when doing basic research.
I also suspect that unexpected results are more likely to be followed up if you’re doing basic research. I’m thinking for instance of the Millennium Bridge in London that wobbled when it first opened due to amplification and synchronization of pedestrian footfalls. It’s a really cool physical effect, still not fully understood IIRC. I recall reading a quote from one of the bridge designers, something like “there’s some really interesting science to be done here, but we just needed to fix the bridge”. Which they did by installing dampers.
Re: that result on citation rates of basic vs. applied research in patent filings, I’m sorry, but I’m really disappointed in the amount of play that has gotten. That is *such* an obviously crude and indirect measure of the “impact” of basic research. For instance, if patent filings are written anything like scientific papers, I bet a *lot* of those citations are in passing. Honestly, I think academic scientists are hyping that result just because it’s telling them what they want to hear. If it had found a result they didn’t like, I bet they’d all be ripping the methodology.
“if patent filings are written anything like scientific papers”
The average patent is on the order of 7-10 thousand words (1), and cites on average, only 8 articles [based on the 5.8 million publication citations by 718 thousand biomedical patents in (2) ]. Less than one citation a page. I have very little knowledge of how patents are written either, but based on these stats I highly doubt they are written like academic papers. In academia, there is motivation to over cite irrelevant or at least only loosely related papers, (pleasing reviewers/editors, showing how your work relates to a very wide body of literature, h-hacking, etc.). When applying for a patent the incentive to cite is in the other direction; the more you cite the less novel your patent looks, and hence the less likely your patent is to be granted (this is based on my very limited understanding of what some of my colleagues in the biomedical and engineering related fields have told me).
There is no doubt that the piece in science (and the review in nature) is only there because of current events and the greater context of the past half year. The bigger issue I have is “what does 30% even mean?” What is the null citation model? I think this is part of what you are getting at. It should also be noted that over 50% of patents in the Science paper didn’t cite any paper indexed by pubmed and that it appears (when looking at the supplement) that these patents were removed from the denominator when calculating the 30% figure.
I agree that the citation metric is incredibly crude, and doesn’t really do a good job of quantifying real-world impact. However, over citations is something I’m not so concerned about in comparison to the deeper problem of “what does this figure even mean?”. This isn’t my area of expertise, so I’m not sure what the answer is to any of these questions.
The above is not an ideal reference for patent length because it isn’t about strictly biomedical patents.
Pingback: How I prepared for my March for Science talk | Dynamic Ecology
Speaking as an amateur with a strong science background, a major difference between basicl research and applied research (and the likelihood of “new knowledge” coming from either) is in the breadth of focus. Applied research reminds me somewhat of “experiments” in college and grad school. The research is designed to find the answer to an assigned question. Going “off-topic” and “off-task” when something interesting turns up isn’t acceptable. Whether the task appears broad (“Find a cure for X cancer,”) or narrow (“What genetic defect underlies this condition?”) those assigned to work on that problem are encouraged to focus on that problem alone–and often on a narrow part of that problem. Interesting data that don’t have–or appear to have–any relation to the problem are left aside because the pressure to produce the required, already defined answer, is constant. It’s only later that someone else notices the unsuccessful cancer drug may be useful in a non-cancer condition, or that a genetic difference unrelated to the study condition is important for something else.
Basic science does not require that kind of focus (though an individual researcher may be as narrowly focused as they please.) The history of science includes many instances where someone was lured off a planned line of inquiry to something else by unexpected observations or results–and that variation from the simple pursuit of an answer to question they started with produced an important body of knowledge. Being open to surprises, noticing the unexpected, is essential for those doing basic research. And in the long run, more basic research turns out to be useful than shows in quick analyses: it’s part of the fabric of general scientific knowledge, ready to be integrated into the “something useful” when other fields have caught up and there’s a new burst of understanding. My mother, trained in engineering, was always asking me the practical application of what I wanted to learn (“What will you DO with that?”) and my usual answer (“Learn more”) never satisfied her. But engineering is not science–it’s a different mindset–and real discovery comes to those who want to “learn more” even if it doesn’t show immediate applicability to a known problem.
Both applied and basic research–not either one or the other–are important components to advancing knowledge. Both should be supported. And someone should be plundering the wastebaskets of applied science to notice the scraps of surprise/disappointment that are not always useless and may be the foundation of a new knowledge.
Pingback: What it was like to speak at the March for Science in DC | Dynamic Ecology
Pingback: How can scientists engage with policy makers? | Dynamic Ecology