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Williamson 1!

Brian Williamson
Matt Landrus
ENG-121
20 October 2014
On The Prioritization of Scientific Research for Societal Development
"What practical application does this have?" This is a question often asked of scientific
research, especially on the cutting edge. In most circumstances, what is really being asked is:
"How can this be used to make money?" David Kaplan, a theoretical particle physicist at Johns
Hopkins University, was faced with a similar question regarding the practical applications of the
work done at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that is designed to test theories
involving the particles governing the fundamental forces of nature. His honest response was "It
could be nothing–except for understanding everything" (Particle Fever). This exchange
demonstrates a fundamental difference in thoughts and values between those who see merit in
research for the sake of knowledge, and those who's interests are largely monetary. The former
would likely see money and politics as petty when seeking answers to deep questions of our
existence, but the reality is that money and politics do exist, and they are a necessary part of the
research process. As scientists, a convincing argument must be made on the necessity of science
in our complex society, even if it is merely a reminder of how much of that society is a product
of the scientific method.
Without the discoveries made through science, where would we be? If, for example, one
is struck ill, it is commonplace to seek a medical doctor. The doctor informs the individual that
they have a bacterial infection and prescribes antibiotics to remedy this. The antibiotics are

He was not looking for a medical solution to fractured bones. A common theme that is seen amongst many of the great discoveries in science is that the research is rarely done for the practical applications that come of it. The individual is taken to a hospital where X-ray imaging is performed in order to determine the severity and location of the fracture. On top of that. and through many people. which in turn made more groundbreaking discoveries possible. There is little dispute as to the usefulness and practicality of such research in the medical field. Nonetheless. so as to provide the most appropriate treatment. which in turn kills the bacteria and relieves the individual of their ailment. This is of course a gross simplification of the knowledge gathered over many years. it is necessary that an X-ray imaging machine was developed to do this. Stopping here even. known as Crookes tubes. and the discovery of compounds that are capable of destroying the bacteria. work done on the same sort of discharge tubes. led to such inventions as the fluorescent light bulb and the cathode ray tube (CRT) that was used in the first televisions. he was instead investigating cathode rays in discharge tubes. This discovery was made by physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. The work of physicist William Crookes made these groundbreaking discoveries possible. because the practical applications are often not known prior . the discovered association of that bacteria with the ailment. the utility and practicality of the discoveries made from his work. It was in no way obvious to him. In order for that to occur. or to anyone. A less obvious example is necessary.Williamson 2! taken. to make this treatment possible. it was scientific methodology that allowed these discoveries to be made. This treatment relies on the discovery and identification of bacteria. X-radiation will have to have been discovered. Rather than a bacterial infection. as it is easy to see how it can benefit human health. let the ailment instead be a fractured bone.

performing research.Williamson 3! to doing the research. In 2007 a US government study found that university faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth. a researcher's chances of being successfully funded are diminished. and more time jumping through bureaucratic hoops to do so. which lead to yet further discoveries. and so forth. many breakthroughs are in research where its potential applicability is not initially apparent. "The process has become a major time sink. We can go beyond simply solving preexisting problems and limiting ourselves to applications we think possible. A further issue with the system is in how grant winners are decided." They . and the situation is no better in Europe" ("Dr. namely. potentially insignificant discoveries can lead to further discoveries. Rather than primarily looking at the quality of the researchers. A 2011 article for the periodical Scientific American states. Researches must obtain funding through grants distributed by various government agencies and private foundations. With limited funding available. as stated previously. Science writers Brenda and K. and limited grant availability. This is a problem for scientific research because. This would therefore make them risky investments. The current system of scientific funding in the US and Europe is generally considered to be in a bad state. This poses a problem in that researchers must spend more time seeking funding. This is done by means of a reasonably competitive application process. it is generally the safest investments that are chosen. There are far better ways that researchers could be spending their time. Lee Lerner state that "there is a loss of scientific diversity as proposals that have predicable outcomes are viewed as less risky investments of precious capital by grant evaluation committees. we can bring novel ideas into fruition. Additionally. No Money"). and the potential of the research.

When particular research is manipulated to serve a profit interest. For the uninformed individual. and individuals become skeptical of the wrong sorts of things." When it comes to subjects such as cancer research. it creates a bad image of scientific research as a whole. medical researcher Maira BesRastrollo and her associates at the University of Navarra. Often times. The credibility of legitimate research may then be questioned. results can be eschewed to work in the favor of the funding party. the difference between such "bad research" and legitimate research may not be so apparent. As an example. . major breakthroughs are needed to carry things forward. Of the six reviews with conflicts.3% of them found a positive correlation between weight gain and SSBs. the safe approach may not be the best. It is simply no longer science. six of them had potential financial conflicts of interest. Science is certainly not an area to be playing it safe. This is often seen in the pharmaceutical and health research industries. Of the eleven reviews having no conflicts. the same percentage found no known correlation due to insufficient scientific evidence. They found that of the seventeen reviews in question. or even the safest. The issues with this are so apparent that they hardly need mention. and contradicts the very purpose and nature of scientific research. Spain conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews linking weight gain and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). distribution of funds. Another issue seen in the funding system is that of research funded by private interest groups. In a system that discourages that. These sorts of manipulated topics and results only lead to further public confusion.Williamson 4! go on to say that this safe approach drives research "away from the types of risky research that are the likeliest path to more spectacular scientific insights and advances. Pamplona. 83.

then the socially sensitive packaging often contradicts or distorts the facts. as most scientists are not interested in packaging their information in a suitable. which more often than not leads to conjured up controversies. they simply do not care to understand the complexities of any of the many sub-fields of the many scientific disciplines being practiced. socially sensitive manner. science in pop culture is often eschewed or "dumbed-down" in the name of entertainment value. which are further sensationalized by the media. This disconnect is seen on the scientific side as well. such as climate change. and can be seen in many different contexts. after all. A simple part of this issue lies in the fact that there are a staggeringly low number of individuals with scientific backgrounds in political positions. one microbiologist. there is one physicist. He compares that to China. wherein eight of its nine most important government officials have some sort of scientific background. One part of the issue is the disconnect between scientists and the general public. The issue then becomes that if the facts and data offend or contradict cultural and religious beliefs. For most. It is. one chemist. This "anti-intellectualism" culture has long been developing. The largest area in which this affects scientific workings is in politics. and six engineers. The distinct lack of elected officials with scientific backgrounds can really be brought back to the way the American public views science. This packaging is often done by politicians. While the number of government officials with scientific backgrounds may be on the upper end for China. Mathematician John Paulos writes for the New York Times that amongst the 435 members of the US House of Representatives. the public that does the electing. Particularly in America.Williamson 5! The root of many of these issues is based in the way that science is viewed by many individuals. it is more indicative of the numbers for many countries. especially when compared to the US. To .

media. nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'" (19). even the educational institutes themselves are often better funding their athletic systems than their academic systems. Most individuals who have been in the secondary school system are familiar with the typically associated social system. empirical data is not enough. but has been well-explored. Generally the individuals with a better social standing are those who are better aligned with popular culture. The reality is that. A particularly apparent underlying issue can be seen in the school system." While this educational and sociocultural artifact is an issue. it is one that is better explored elsewhere. Individuals pursuing athletic endeavors are often perceived as more popular than those pursuing intellectual endeavors. but it must be made apparent that one's lack of understanding within a particular . as per the "jock" and "geek/nerd" cliques. The strain of antiintellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life. hard. Beyond that.Williamson 6! relevantly quote science fiction writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. or any of its facets. and easily merits an entire paper in and of itself. and there always has been. Many individuals fail to see the usefulness of something that they do not understand. It is a related but distinct issue that deserves mention. whether that is through dress. The solutions to these issues begin in educating the public on the importance of science in society. for science. anything less than cold. At times it is simply necessary to remind one how much of their modern life is due to past scientific endeavors. A 2013 study by educational researcher Donna Desrochers found that "athletic departments spend far more per athlete than institutions spend to educate the average student—typically three to six times as much.

It is necessary that informed voters are able to fact check politicians on their information. Regarding the political issue of climate change. If the public were to be made more aware of the realities of these “issues. as we are painfully aware.Williamson 7! subject does not exclude its potential applicability. and this is made possible by the fruits of the scientific method. A more scientifically informed public will inherently elect more scientifically informed politicians. . But. but opposition is so prevalent that we can't even get to debating the real issue. It is often taken for granted that electromagnetic information can be propagated through the air at the speed of light. policymakers have known about the dangers of climate change going back to the 1960s. After all. Politically. we are only aware of climate change because of science. What's more. not only has nothing been done. Though. a good first step would be to see more elected officials with scientific backgrounds. writer and astrophysicist Adam Frank writes: The basic scientific case that the planet's climate is changing due to human activity has been settled for at least 25 years. The lack of scientifically familiar legislators will only damage the public’s views on the importance of scientific research in our society. in order to make them more informed voters.” they would not be issues at all. After all. this really does stem from educating the public. Many do not realize that a number of things or ideas that are common sense or commonplace today are only so by means of the work done by individuals in developing said thing or idea. how many iPhone owners truly understand the technology they are using to simply send a message? A better appreciation of science will come from a better understanding of what has come of it.

This proves difficult. harsher penalties should be seen for labs violating this scientific integrity. and possibly taken with a grain of salt. the funds currently available are in need of better management and distribution. While science is an incredibly effective tool of verification. and the necessity of a better grant . as far as manipulated research funded by private interest groups is concerned. as it is wasting money in itself. A better way of looking at it may be to think more carefully when considering science and research for budget cuts. it can be an even more effective tool of discovery. carefully checked. Medical reporter Liz Szabo states that the purchasing power of the the government budget for the National Institute of Health (NIH) has fallen 25% over the course of the last decade. At the very least. Increased government funding may also be necessary to create a more stable system of supply and demand within the research sector.Williamson 8! Stemming from potential political solutions.” This serves as a basic example just from the health sector as to the value of research in the economy. Scientific integrity is to be taken seriously by scientists if science is to be taken seriously by the public. it is in their best interest for the application process to be smooth and concise. as government funds can be tight. a reform of the research funding system is necessary. incremental research with predicable results. The time consuming bureaucratic process is also in need of simplification. she writes that “every dollar invested in the NIH returns two dollars in goods and services to the economy within a year. Additionally. This can first be done by a deliberate allocation of more funds towards innovative and potentially groundbreaking research versus safe. this research should be labeled accordingly. Before considering solutions involving increased funding. In addition. If the organizations distributing grants wish to get the most out of their money. It is unacceptable that researchers should need to spend so much of their valuable time navigating the grant funding system.

In a political system with an obvious lack of scientific literacy. Novelty awaits us. the funds can be found. This tool that has given us the power to see the workings of the human brain. and to visit worlds beyond our own. scientific research proves to be an indispensable tool of innovation. and solutions are easier said than done. Careful considerations must be made in seeing the long term beneficial effects that a well funded scientific research system can produce. and the solutions implemented with the right motivation and intentions. It is difficult to predict what sorts of potentially beneficial results can be affected or absent due to a lack of funding. where an individual’s wildest thoughts and dreams mark just the beginning of our capabilities as humans. Given the proper resources.
 . science will carry us confidently into a universe of unknowns. Science has successfully faced much larger problems than funding issues. voters and policy makers must be reminded of its important place in our society. we must not neglect the tool that has created it. to understand the beginnings of our universe.Williamson 9! funding model. and the affected research could likely be blamed on inadequacies of the ill funded researchers. It represents the best of our unique skills of analysis. If we wish to continue improving the amazing technological society we are a part of. and science is our vessel. and pattern recognition that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. As can be seen. the consequences may be completely unknown. While it may seem an easy “economically extra” area to siphon money from. It is something to be cherished and preserved. memory. This is why it is important to consider the way in which scientific breakthroughs produce knowledge that allows for further scientific breakthroughs. While finding the money to properly fund scientific research is difficult.

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