Why we should pay for science that sounds silly

 Biologist Patricia Brennan prepares a female dolphin’s reproductive tract for dissection. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

Biologist Patricia Brennan prepares a female dolphin’s reproductive tract for dissection. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

A biologist says her research on dolphin sex is worth public investment.

A whole bunch of dolphin clitorises are laid out on a table in Patricia Brennan‘s lab at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

The biologist and her team want to understand whether or not animals experience pleasure during sex. But she says, right now, scientists have no idea how to distinguish the internal structures and mechanics of a dolphin clitoris.

The collaborators are examining the specimens by slicing them thinly and putting them through an X-ray. If the clitoris has a lot of nerves, Brennan says that could mean females enjoy sex.


Patricia Brennan and her lab are studying dolphin clitorises to see if female dolphins enjoy sex. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

But maybe you’re wondering, why should we care if dolphins like having sex?

Brennan says, as a scientist, she finds it hard to understand why lay people wouldn’t care.

“We study predator avoidance behavior, and locomotion, and feeding, singing, and coloration, but all of those things literally have evolved for the purpose of keeping an animal alive long enough so that it can have sex,” she says.

That’s not clear to a lot of people, and Brennan’s work was publicly mocked in 2013.

That moment was a bit of a turning point for her.

“When my research was attacked … saying it’s a waste of money, who cares about duck penises and all that stuff, then it became very clear that we were just not doing a good enough job educating the public about why this is important,” she says.

Brennan does basic research. That means she asks questions even when she doesn’t know how the answer might be used, as opposed to, say, people who work specifically on curing cancer.

So why pay for basic research when we could be spending our entire science budget on curing cancer? Brennan says basic research can lead to applied research — the practical application of science.

For example, in 1979, scientists were studying how baby rats grow, and they realized that, aside from food and warmth, the rats also need to be licked. When a mother licks her pup, it kicks off a cascade of chemicals that promote growth.

“Once [the scientists] figured that out, what they did is they had a bunch of rats in the basement, they had undergraduate students using a little toothbrush and brushing the little pups every day to stimulate the mum licking, and get the pups to grow,” Brennan says.

It turns out that some things that work for rat babies also work for premature human babies. That’s why doctors know that, even though premature babies may have weak immune systems, it’s important to massage and touch them.

“That was all because scientists were tickling rats in the basement,” Brennan says. “There’s no way that anybody could have predicted that there was going to be that kind of application coming out of this kind of project, which is part of the point.”


Patricia Brennan has embraced the job of telling people about the importance of science. (Alan Yu/WHYY)

Science historian Melinda Baldwin says you can make pretty much any basic science sound silly.

“If the news media had been around in Galileo’s day, they might have run a headline saying something like ‘Crazed Philosopher Wastes City Money, Endangers Citizens.'”

According to this legend, in one of Galileo’s experiments he dropped cannon balls, musket balls, silver and wooden objects off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Baldwin says that, since so much science is funded by tax dollars, scientists have to think seriously about how to explain their work to people. While scientists see science as an inherent public good, not everyone does.

“They need to remember that … they may be talking to people who kind of gritted their way through high school physics, didn’t enjoy it very much, and don’t really see, for example, the usefulness of putting the Kepler Telescope into space to detect exoplanets,” Baldwin says.

“You’re talking to people who may not be able to pay their electric bill, you’re talking to people who may be struggling to pay for child care, and you need to convince them that their hard-earned money should be funding your project.” 

As an example of what not to do, Baldwin points to how James Shannon, the director of the National Institutes of Health, responded when Congress held hearings about NIH funding in the 1960s.

“He kind of said, ‘We’re scientists, we deserve the money, science is good, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.’ That’s really not persuasive,” she says.

Biologist Jessica Pelland warns scientists against seeing themselves as separate from the general public, or “othering” them. It happened to her.

Pelland did neuroscience research as an undergraduate.

“I was spending a lot of time with grad students, scientists in general, enjoying having very intellectual conversations. I kind of thought that I had graduated to this exclusive club of people who talked about science and research.”

Later she worked in a biology lab, and that switch made her see things differently.

“I was really humbled by how little I knew,” she says. “I think it made me realize that I am still the general public, we are all still the general public, there’s infinite amounts of knowledge and science to learn.” 

She and Patricia Brennan have both embraced the job of talking to people about the importance of science. Brennan says she talks to anyone who will listen, and more scientists should join.

“If everybody were doing the same all over the U.S., I think eventually we will make a difference, but it’s not one person, it’s not Bill Nye. Poor Bill Nye. I feel bad for him.”

Brennan is from Colombia. She says funding basic science can lead to patents and innovation, and that gives the U.S. an advantage.

“Colombia is not a wealthy country by any stretch of the imagination; we are part of the developing world,” she says.

“We do have a science program and we do have a science institute, and when you look at the kinds of things we fund, virtually all of the science that we fund is applied science, and rightly so, because we don’t have that much money.”

By contrast, Brennan says the U.S. is a rich, well-developed country, and that, for decades, the U.S. has been the epicenter of scientific discovery. She warns that if the United States cuts funding for research now, it could lose its leadership position to China, which is investing heavily in science.


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