Under the microscope: Science for the sake of science

Every time I get asked, “So, what do you do?” my breath briefly catches in my throat, and a barrage of questions runs through my head: How much does this person really want to know? What’s their knowledge base? Should I emphasize the applications of my research even though it may not be applicable for 50 to 100 years… or possibly ever? Is anyone ever interested in what I do just because, like me, they think it is exceptionally cool?

I’m a scientist, and in every social situation, my mind is constantly whirring trying to find the delicate balance between telling someone what I actually do and avoiding the tidal waves of boredom which may soon be crashing down on their face. 

I love explaining my work to new audiences; it is important to advocate for science and participate in community outreach. But when scientists are asked to justify research based solely on the outcome, I find myself thinking, Since when did the value of fundamental knowledge disappear? Why must I promise a grand discovery, like curing AIDS, before I can pay my rent? 

What ever happened to science for the sake of science? 

There has been a shift in government funding which now forces researchers to validate the results of a project before having started it. The National Science Foundation in the United States requires that all applications prove that a project will have either intellectual merit within its field or broader applications to society. In the 2009 Times Higher Education debate in the UK, Paul Drayson, minister of science, declared, “Scientists should be accountable where work is funded by the taxpayer and therefore I think it is right that scientists should be asked to think about the impact that they have had.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems very reasonable to demand a tangible outcome for the billions of tax dollars and charity donations that are contributed to science every year. But in this system, science loses some of its creativity. Science is, in fact, an art with knowledge as its product.  

And the value of that knowledge is a very difficult sum to estimate, especially when we don’t know what the knowledge will be. We may promise to save the world from malaria or cure colon cancer, and we do believe that with enough hard work and dedication, this is possible. But we are only human, and sometimes your best is not good enough. 

Fundamentally, science is an art where curiosity inspires questions which, when investigated, lead to a greater understanding of the universe. If this understanding improves the lives of those around us, so much the better.

There are two inherent values in the curiosity-based search for knowledge. Firstly, and foremost, there is a beauty in our ability to understand the world around us. Secondly, many unexpected groundbreaking discoveries have been made by someone who just thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this? with little idea of how they will change the world.

A couple years ago I attended a talk given by one of the founders of Illumina, a company that sequences genomes. In his advocacy for science for the sake of science, Dr. Shankar Balasubramanian declared that the idea which ultimately resulted in their company came from an evening at the pub when he and his colleagues declared — and I paraphrase — “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could watch DNA being made!” This is exactly what they did.

To understand how important it is that Balasubramanian cites science for the sake of science as the impetus for Illumina’s foundation, one has to understand the importance of the company’s contributions. Illumina pioneered next-generation DNA sequencing. After the Human Genome Project, which took 13 years from 1990 to 2003 to sequence one human genome, the founders of Illumina discovered a technique which now enables us to sequence a human genome in a matter of hours.  

Suddenly, the field of genetics exploded, with companies like 23andMe offering to give the public insights into the inner workings of their bodies. Personalized medicine has been revolutionized. We now know that different people respond differently to the same drug, and we can start predicting what drugs might work based on a person’s specific genome.  

Yet, as Balasubramanian declared, the scientists who revolutionized this field weren’t interested in the applications of watching DNA being made at the time of their brainwave. They simply realized that with the tools they had at their disposal, they could explore an area of science that they thought was cool!

Many may not be convinced by just one example of science for the sake of science changing the world. For those dissenters, I turn to a little jellyfish swimming in the Puget Sound known as Aequorea victoria. This little organism has changed the path of biological research, simply because in the early 70’s Dr. Osamu Shimomura wanted to understand how a jellyfish could glow in the dark.

Following his quirky interest, Shimomura went on to isolate and characterize a small fluorescent protein in the jellyfish, now known as GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Using GFP, Dr. Martin Chalfie was able to make a worm glow green whenever certain genes were being used. Protein chemist Dr. Roger Y. Tsien then genetically engineered GFP to produce a whole rainbow of fluorescing proteins.

While enabling organisms to fluoresce in every color of the rainbow is undoubtedly cool, GFP and its colorful cousins have also enabled us to see invisible events and track invisible proteins in living organisms. They have literally shone so much light on biochemistry that Shimomura, Chalfie and Tsien were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry. 

It is vital to remember that none of this would have been possible without one man being excessively intrigued by a light-producing jellyfish back in 1974.

What has happened to our ability to investigate the natural world simply to discover the beauty around us?

Every year billions of taxpayer dollars fund projects in the arts. Why is public funding of science any different? As scientists, we are not so different from artists. We find beauty in the workings of the universe, and each day we discover new creative ways to probe it further. Surely, both forms of creativity have the ability to enrich the lives of those who wish to benefit.   

Potential applications of research enables funding agencies to justifiably distribute money. But perhaps it is worth considering that in this era of justification, we may be missing not only beautiful scientific discoveries but groundbreaking ones as well.

Chantal is a PhD candidate in chemistry at UBC and is a leader in demonstrating the importance of weak chemical interactions in a variety of physical and biological applications.