We live in a society that is absolutely dependent on the fruits of science and technology yet a significant fraction of our population (and more crucially, many people in power) emphatically dismiss, deride, and ridicule the same practices that make technological advances possible.
I will not go into what I think about the generalities of this phenomenon, but I refer you to a couple posts of mine: I’m still afraid for my science and Why write about science? Today, in this brief post, I will emphasize on a very particular aspect of biological research: invertebrates, particularly flatworms, and why do I think that the general public must be aware of what are the benefits of such research.
About ten years ago (!) an ostensibly popular and articulate Vice-Presidential candidate here in the U.S. mocked fruit fly research, using it as an example of the misuse of government money. Almost immediately she was rightly mocked in a variety of articles for her comments. Here is one of the best.
This is not an unprecedented event in the convoluted relationship between science and U.S. politics. In the 1970s, Democrat Senator William Proxmire created his “Golden Fleece Awards” supposed to showcase wasteful government spending, not necessarily in the sciences. A historical perspective on this activity is found here. One of the most famous Golden Fleece Awards was to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) funding. An award that prompted no other than Carl Sagan to personally talk to Senator Proxmire and explain what SETI was and what was not. To his credit, the senator listened to reason. Alas, the U.S. government eventually discontinued SETI funding…
A more recent example (2015) was a similar “Golden Fleece-like” effort by Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who highlighted mantis shrimp research as an example of wasteful spending. The scientist working on that research, Dr. Sheila Patek, went to Washington alongside some other scientists in an activity organized by the Coalition to Promote Research in an effort to explain a variety of projects. Dr. Patek honored science by masterfully explaining her research to Senator Flake.
Where do I begin?
The sciences of genetics and developmental biology would look rather different and perhaps even not as advanced if not for the contributions of scientists who worked on the fundamental biology of fruit flies. Moreover, even if you do not like fruit flies and merely want them out of the picture so they will not negatively affect agriculture, you have to study them nonetheless. As for the mantis shrimp research, one of the immediate benefits will be to better understand the phenomenon of cavitation, a particularly troublesome effect that damages boat’s propellers. Mind you, I have not even scratched the proverbial surface of all the possible benefits of the aforementioned research on fruit flies and mantis shrimp. And these are just two examples. There are many more, but you certainly get my point.
Enter the flatworm.
Can you imagine having the knowledge to repair the damage of the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease or the devastating effects of extensive brain injuries say, caused by a car accident? Regeneration research using several types of flatworm species show an incredible promise to come up with ways to fix damaged brains. Again, as in the examples above, there are multiple possible benefits of studying this fascinating organism.
OK, my scientific colleagues have absolutely no problems with the statements above. after all, that is what we all work on. We get that fundamental research can and has led to wonderful, unexpected practical applications in more than one instance. The history of science and technology is full of such examples.
This is why I write about flatworms for the general public. Make no mistake, I regularly publish my own research in scientific journals. Mind you, I work in a predominantly teaching institution, with an average of four courses and roughly 500 students each semester, plus all other duties related to my place of work. Yet I make the time to do research because it is fascinating and (who knows?) might someday lead to practical applications. If you want to see a list of my papers please go here.
Now, about “planarians for the general public”, my first formal effort was the publication of my first book: The First Brain: The Neuroscience of Planarians. Published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
Image credit: Oxford University Press
Even though it was published by an academic press, the book was written with the layperson in mind. It is not technical at all, and tells some aspects of the story of the contributions of these flatworms to the neurosciences and pharmacology.
More recently, I wrote an invited review for The International Journal of Developmental Biology (below).
Image credit: The International Journal of Developmental biology
I have a confession to make: ***I did not write The First Brain or the review article above for my fellow scientists or even for my fellow flatworm enthusiasts.***
Although I hope that they would be useful and perhaps entertaining to my colleagues, I wrote them for the school student who may be thinking about a career in science, for the school teacher who is looking to inspire students and impress upon them with a fascination for science, for the interested layperson…
… and for the legislator who may be looking for ways to identify wasteful spending. How long do you think it would take for a senator to say something in the lines of “…money spent wastefully on how worms grow their heads back…” ?
There you have it. these issues are more important than ever, and an educated public, educated lawmakers are essential for our society in general and for our country in particular to thrive and perhaps survive the challenges that are affecting humanity.
What do you think?
Feature image credit: Dr. Masaharu Kawakatsu. Used by permission.
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