I know we have not long crawled out from a recession, but why is it that research universities and centres in the UK and other countries are having to tighten their belts, some struggling to survive, yet groups are still receiving funding for wacky, or seemingly pointless research?!
Don’t get me wrong, quirky and daft research can provide harmless entertainment and can spur people’s interest in science, which is important. For example, the satirical Ig nobel prizes (the american parody of the Nobel Prize, where awards are given for achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced), is entertaining and sometimes even thought-provoking. Also, curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including the discovery of penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution. However, research which is very unlikely to have any impact, or that seems pointless, should not be funded at the detriment of important scientific research. It is wrong to judge research purely by its economic potential and the progression of science should be highly valued. Surely some common sense must be applied to ensure that the governments science budget and other science research funding is being well spent.
The annual £4.6 billion science budget has been ring-fenced for the next four years, not much when you consider the billions wasted by the government each year and the fact that this is a small percentage of the GDP compared to amount spent on science research in other countries. The government unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much “impact” the research has in 2009. However, here are a few of the more extreme examples of studies that appear to have ‘slipped through the net’ and have actually been published in peer review journals:
Optimising the sensory characteristics and acceptance of canned cat food: use of a human taste panel. (Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition)
Effects of cocaine on honeybee dance behaviour. (Journal of Experimental Biology)
Swearing as a response to pain. (NeuroReport)
Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children. (Animal Cognition)
Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time. (PLoS One)
Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture-threshold suffice to break the human skull? (Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine)
The nature of navel fluff. (Medical Hypotheses)
People argue that the findings of these studies have important implications to science, but how important can it be to understand whether pigeons in the street ‘have the ability to learn the concept of beauty’?!
For more studies, see the blog of Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin (UC Berkeley, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Rolling On the Floor Laughing), a repository for absurd published scientific papers.
Granted that not all of these studies may have required large amounts of funding or directly competed with ‘more important’ research, however there are less provocative studies doing just this. More effort should be made to judge the worth of studies and more funding should be directed towards research which is likely to have a major impact, progress science, benefit the economy, improve quality of life and prevent the major causes of death, (which probably qualifies for the other categories as well). Economical spending and continued investment are essential in order to continue world-class scientific research in the UK.
Some more reading below: