Why research for the pure sake of knowing is enough

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, a "NewsHour" Essay.

Biologist Sheila Patek has faced criticism for her research on mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants. In recent months, members of Congress have called her studies a waste of taxpayer money.

Tonight, she explains how dismissing her work misses the aim of scientific research and discovery.

SHEILA PATEK, Biologist, Duke University: Some years ago, I presented my lab's discoveries to a group of leading thinkers and public figures.

We discovered that mantis shrimp use hammers equivalent to the mass of two toothpicks and move them with the acceleration of a bullet to pulverize thick snail shells. We discovered that tiny trap-jaw ants close their jaws with 100,000 times the acceleration of a sprinting cheetah.

I expressed the wonder of these discoveries, as well as their fundamental significance to physics, evolution, and the limits of current engineering capabilities.

A prominent lawyer from Nigeria who was in the audience that day approached me a few days later. Her first words to me were, "Your research disgusted me with such waste, studying trivial and useless problems."

In that moment, she had voiced my most vulnerable thoughts: that the science to which I would dedicated much of my life was actually pointless.

But she added, "I realized something important, that science is about discovery, not just about solving human problems."

She then spoke a phrase that has stuck with me over the years. She said, "I want what you have for my country."

In her country, Nigeria, there was simply no infrastructure for this type of discovery-based research. In fact, many solutions to humans' problems began in a scientist's laboratory. Did you know that some of the most significant medical breakthroughs for the human brain began with research on sea slugs?

The value of my work came under attack again when Republican Senator Jeff Flake featured it in a Wastebook. That's a partisan report that highlights what some in Congress see as wasteful government spending. They ridiculed a research project in my lab that showed how mantis shrimp use their lethal weapons to resolve conflicts without killing each other.

But if you think about it, this is a fundamental question for any animal or human system that has lethal capabilities. In response to the Wastebook attack, I was invited to present my research on Capitol Hill.

Senator Flake came to the event, and I spoke to him one on one. I told him the story of one of the many unanticipated paths from my lab's discoveries to human applications. I explained how the extraordinarily intense impacts of mantis shrimp hammers inspired engineers to make new materials.

One day, this might result in lightweight, impact-resistant sports helmets and military armor. He actually seemed engaged. So, I asked him, "Did any of my research seem worthwhile?"

Senator Flake said yes. He was especially interested in the novel engineering products.

These fundamental discoveries and their potential for translation are why my research program is funded by the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. However, engineering-related applications are not the primary reason we do this research.

The nature of discovery is that it is impossible to anticipate what you will find. That is discovery. Discovery-based research is most fruitful when new knowledge is sought for its own sake.

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