Choosing a research question – for science or for the public?

Jun 01 2017 Published by under conflict, funding, hearable message, Public, research

There is increasing pressure and urgency for scientists to be visible and accessible to the public, but also to choose the most important and appealing research in an uncertain funding climate. To whom are scientific researchers beholden in the choice of research studies to perform? To the funding agencies who sponsor us? To the taxpayers who ultimately fund those public institutions? To ourselves to carve a niche and promising career path? Or purely to science, to go where the data and your passions take you?

A recent article in the Atlantic described one extreme – research demonstrating the lack of a link between gluten and heart disease – not because there was any reason to believe that such a link existed, but precisely because there was no evidence that one should, and yet many popular books, diets, and people espoused this idea. The researchers argue that this is how science should work – people of the world have an idea and scientists demonstrate whether there is evidence to support the idea or not.

I strongly support this approach on principle, but I have to wonder if it’s the wisest course of action today. Is it wasteful to spend precious resources on research questions that have no basis and minimal chance of adding to knowledge that will improve the human condition or the world? To be clear, I absolutely support research for the sake of knowledge, and hope it is widely understood that future revolutions will come from today’s explorations for the sake of curiosity, like cell phone capability relied on a foundation of knowledge from Hedy Lamarr’s invention of frequency hopping in the 1940s, which couldn’t be implemented with the technology of the day. But when we’re talking about biomedical research like the study mentioned above, would those resources be better spent on investigation of mechanisms and treatments for real ailments?

Furthermore, using science to disprove a popular misconception doesn’t seem to work, as has been the case for the supposed dangers of vaccines. The translation of information from scientific findings to incorporation into the public mindset and practice must be fixed for this to be effective.

These days I’m just hoping we can maintain a funding level that covers research that runs the gamut, from scientists like me, following the data and trying to help human conditions, to pure exploration, like some of my favorite researchers.


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