“Why should we care about what you do?”

Persuading people to support basic science can be difficult, be they members of the public or even other scientists. This is especially so for environmental biology, where the immediate applications of our research are not as clear-cut as fields related to human health or the engineering sciences. How we present our research to non-specialists depends in large part upon on our own personal motivations for doing science, and thinking about the question “why should we care about your research?” can help us to put our own work in perspective. Here are some general points that I have found useful.

Display your own conviction and self-confidence

Being asked “why should we care” can be dispiriting, because it can sometimes appear to convey the hidden message “what you do is fundamentally unimportant to society”, even if that wasn’t intended by the speaker. However, giving a weak or non-committal reply can be counterproductive, because that in turn conveys the impression that one doesn’t really know or care about one’s research.

I have found that when I try to give some idea of what motivates me to work in science, and of the intellectual interest and stimulation that I get from it personally, it is usually received in good faith. Most people are not so cynical as to deride such personal motivations as being selfish. Of course it doesn’t answer the question about why the public should support science, but it invites them to empathize with you, and shows how you are personally invested in it.

Basic science research maintains basic science knowledge

Basic research, whether in the sciences or humanities, has always been a harder sell than the applied sciences, and for good reason. Basic research is undertaken to advance knowledge. The assumption that knowledge should be advanced for its own sake is largely an Enlightenment idea, whereas state-funded infrastructures to support and invest in basic research have only been around since the post-WWII era. As a rough gauge of public interest in applied vs. pure research, in 2014, the National Institutes of Health in the US received $30 billion in funding, compared to $7.2 billion for the National Science Foundation, and $146 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

As basic scientists, we have more in common with the humanities than we would perhaps like to acknowledge, in terms of our social function. Perhaps it might help to take an argument from their book. The teaching and learning about the humanities are seen as an aspect of cultural heritage. It may not be very practical for most people to know about musical theory or to be able to read and write Classical Greek, but in the back of one’s mind it is comforting to know that someone, somewhere has these skills and knowledge. It would be a loss to our culture if no one could read Plato in the original, just as it would be a loss if the Parthenon was blown up.

Likewise, investing in basic science is investing in the people who do the science, who are keeping the knowledge alive. This is not just the new knowledge that we are generating through research, but also the old knowledge that we first have to master to be competent in our work.

To other biologists: We are verifying the model systems

Environmental and organismal biologists have a special problem, because we are working with systems that are less well-understood than the model systems like E. coli and yeast. We may be asked, why work on these poorly-known, uncultivable organisms when we could answer our questions more easily with one of the available lab rats?

The answer to this is that model systems are precisely that: models for learning general principles about biology. Like theoretical models, they are convenient simplifications of the real world. The science that is built on model systems is able to go into great depth because of the foregoing accumulated knowledge, and the community of workers and expertise that has built up around them. However, the general principles learned have to be tested in the “real world”, to see if they are really applicable to what is out there. This is what we do as organismal biologists, and putting the individual pieces into a bigger picture of how the world works is what we do as environmental scientists. It is worth thinking of a few specific examples of this from one’s own research.

Don’t piggyback on prestige

One argument that is sometimes used is that studying a certain organism X will help us to understand human health and disease (or something else similarly prestigious) because of certain parallels Y. If X are lab mice and Y is a gene for male pattern baldness, it might be scientifically valid. But this is a matter of degree, and the links can be increasingly tenuous. This is usually accompanied by vague words and phrases like “insight” and “shedding light”.

Piggybacking on prestige can be counterproductive. It leaves one open to the criticism: “If you really care about [curing cancer / human gut microbes / life on Mars], why not [work with human cancer cells / look at human poop / go to Mars] instead of [irradiating frogs / playing with worms / flying drones in my living room]?” It also betrays a lack of confidence in one’s own field of study.

Don’t oversell the applications

This is a corollary to piggybacking on prestige. In searching for justification for our basic science, we sometimes point to the applications that can inadvertently come out of it. This is an argument well-used by supporters of space exploration, who point to the marvelous spin-off inventions that have come from the space race: GPS, artificial limb technology, and freeze-dried ice cream. If these potential applications are vague (“studying these gutless worms will help us better understand digestion!”) or far-fetched (“studying these gutless worms will teach us how to live without needing to eat!”), they are probably better left unsaid.

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