Down the rabbit hole

I’ve been reminded lately that science is largely done for fun by the people who choose to do it for a living. Lawrence Krauss talks about taking joy in science, something I didn’t do very well at all throughout my Ph.D. or my postdoc. Being serious all the time was my demeanor a lot, actually. I’m that person who gets told ‘you’re so serious’ all the time. I ceased to see the fun part of science which really can be thought of as going down the rabbit hole like Alice to Wonderland. Though the original ‘Through the Looking Glass’ wrold is a dark place, there’s also some whimsical and interesting things- it’s an adventure and involves risk, stepping out your door can be a dangerous business. Assuming your’e open to what’s out there.

Openness to possibility is key to scientific progress. Though the House Science Committee Chair seems to disagree with this notion and thinks science is about what are perceived priorities that will immediately enrich our economy. While some things are fairly obvious to fund and invest in, how do you account for getting the World Wide Web out of CERN? That’s a happy accident that permits me to transmit this to readers. All because of a large scale science experiment discovering fundamental (likely useless) structures of the universe. Lasers were similar. Electromagnets. Who knew that specific and certain plants produce compounds that work as medicines (maybe intuitive as people have done this for thousands of years, but there’s likely a lot to be discovered out there still). A lot of discoveries come out of stydying the ecosystems and identifying what’s there. how it interacts with everything else and no immediate economic benefit from that until it’s discovered. The initial discovery of microbes was useless too.


Science is full of stories where basic discoveries are made all at once by several people at once because they’re ready to be made due to the studies of previous generations. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace discovered the process of natural selection and they were simply observing the nature and there was no practical application in mind, though it turns out that evolution is quite important in unifying all life on Earth and means we can use things learned in one living system to others. And even transfer genes between organisms via recombinant DNA technology.

Scientists need to have a sense of play. This example of studying cicada wings is a good recent example of just how something seemingly pointless to fund research into, but turns out could lead to some very useful things for people. Wonder is essential.

Taking things seriously all the time can lead to burn out. I’ve written about it before. In fact, that’s a big theme in a lot of this blog; I am writing to hopefully help other scientists avoid the mental doldrums I found myself in and am now, after many years, climbing out of.


The funding for scientific research is probably the worst it’s ever been. This is forcing young scientists, postdocs and graduate students particularly, to consider alternatives. Science is hard for a lot of us to let go, another theme of this blog. Where do we leap to? I recently met Kat Alexander, someone who quit her Ph.D. program and her story resonates with me, even though I haven’t done that yet. It would seem to be gut wrenching. Many of us have truly been pursuing science since we were little kids. And now, it’s a little hard to talk to advisors about alternate paths. And for me, it’s hard to know when to make a clean break in terms of my research. Rep. Smith’s proposal would make it even harder to get traction in the scientific world.


I was recently in Washington, DC for a friends‘ wedding and went to the National Gallery’s ‘Fake It’ exhibit. It examined the history of photography and how from the beginning, photographers were manipulating images in all sorts of ways. Sometimes for artistic purposes, sometimes to highlight societal issues, and sometimes to fake real events. All before we had Photoshop software. Studying the photographs, it was sometimes very hard to tell what was manipulated. The surface belies what is actually there. It’s similar with scientific grant proposals. Many sound ridiculous on the surface (why would anyone even care about that!?), but are actually quite profound. Even grants that are designed to find disease treatments sound a little esoteric in some way.

Scientists push the boundaries of knowledge, like the peripheral vision of an eye where things are just seen. Stars seen with peripheral vision often disappear when you look right at them. This is due to how the different light perceiving cells in the eye optimally see dim light at the periphery and bright, color vision in the middle. The goal of science is to bring those seemingly hidden stars to full light, so everyone can see the world as it is. And when those dim stars are fully illuminated, science is moving onto the next frontier, the new periphery.

Rep. Smith doesn’t seem to understand that. If NSF grants are submitted to Congress for review after they’re approved in the grant review process, it won’t just be social sciences that are defunded. I am guessing that Rep. Smith is not a believer in climate change- so why would we fund research into it if he had his way? Similar with Evolution. I know not all Republicans hold those positions, but many in Congress seem to- it’s not hard to find examples of anti-science Republicans.

There are more than enough real scientific problems to solve and novel systems to explore them. Funding could increase somewhat so we can make even more discoveries, have more accidental applications come from it and enrich people’s lives. I want to spread what scientists learn about the world and educate the public. It’s F$%^ing amazing that we landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars, as one example. Humans like stories and what scientists do is tell the story of nature and document just how they uncovered those things, and give credit to those whose work theirs is based upon. Scientists are starting to get better at telling their stories in engaging ways and disseminating research that was funded by the tax payer back to that tax payer, but much more needs to be done.

It is extremely competitive, no grant is a shoe in today. Between the competition, the lack of jobs- private sector and academic in STEM (arts too) fields- it is no wonder that many scientists want an alternative, or are getting anxious about their present. The current system hasn’t really trained us for alternatives, partly by design and partly because scientists tend to be very focused individuals who have been set on pursuing science from an early age. The social science grants Rep. Smith objects to probably do have real relevance, it just isn’t obvious on the surface.

There are certainly reforms to the science funding system and the academic system that would be welcome. This just isn’t one of them. Try again.

Ever on and on.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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