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UW-Madison BIOLOGY 101 - Basic vs applied science

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Basic vs. Applied Research (from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; http://www.lbl.gov/Education/ELSI/research--‐main.html) Basic Research: Basic (aka fundamental or pure) research is driven by a scientist's curiosity or interest in a scientific question. The main motivation is to expand man's knowledge, not to create or invent something. There is no obvious commercial value to the discoveries that result from basic research. For example, basic science investigations probe for answers to questions such as: • How did the universe begin? • What are protons, neutrons, and electrons composed of? • How do slime molds reproduce? • What is the specific genetic code of the fruit fly? Most scientists believe that a basic, fundamental understanding of all branches of science is needed in order for progress to take place. In other words, basic research lays down the foundation for the applied science that follows. If basic work is done first, then applied spin-offs often eventually result from this research. As Dr. George Smoot of LBNL says, "People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what's going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears." Applied Research: Applied research is designed to solve practical problems of the modern world, rather than to acquire knowledge for knowledge's sake. One might say that the goal of the applied scientist is to improve the human condition. For example, applied researchers may investigate ways to: • improve agricultural crop production • treat or cure a specific disease • improve the energy efficiency of homes, offices, or modes of transportation Some scientists feel that the time has come for a shift in emphasis away from purely basic research and toward applied science. This trend, they feel, is necessitated by the problems resulting from global overpopulation, pollution, and the overuse of the earth's natural resources. So, which is more important, basic science or applied science. They are BOTH important. Basic research provides the foundation for applied research – we get new ideas for applied research based on new discoveries of the natural world. The article below, Why I Study Duck Genitalia, provides a specific example of the importance of basic research and how it drives applied research. It can also provide some talking points when you are debating with family or friends as to why it might be important for some of you tax dollars to go towards basic research.A ruddy duck and its penis. Why I Study Duck Genitalia Fox News and other conservative sites miss the point of basic science. By Patricia Brennan| In the past few days, the Internet has been filled with commentary on whether the National Science Foundation should have paid for my study on duck genitalia, and 88.7 percent of respondents to a Fox news online poll agreed that studying duck genitalia is wasteful government spending. The commentary supporting and decrying the study continues to grow. As the lead investigator in this research, I would like to weigh in on the controversy and offer some insights into the process of research funding by the NSF. My research on bird genitalia was originally funded in 2005, during the Bush administration. Thus federal support for this research cannot be connected exclusively to sequestration or the Obama presidency, as many of the conservative websites have claimed. Since Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards in the 1970s and 1980s, basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government “wastes” taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research. These arguments misrepresent the distinction between and the roles of basic and applied science. Basic science is not aimed at solving an immediate practical problem. Basic science is an integral part of scientific progress, but individual projects may sound meaningless when taken out of context. Basic science often ends up solving problems anyway, but it is just not designed for this purpose. Applied science builds upon basic science, so they are inextricably linked. As an example, Geckskin™ is a new adhesive product with myriad applications developed by my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts. Their work is based on several decades of basic research on gecko locomotion. Whether the government should fund basic research in times of economic crisis is a valid question that deserves well-informed discourse comparing all governmental expenses. As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy. The government cannot afford not to make that investment. In fact, I argue that research spending should increase dramatically for the United States to continue to lead the world in scientific discovery. Investment in the NSF is just over $20 per year per person, while it takes upward of $2,000 per year per person to fund the military. Basic research has to be funded by the government rather than private investors because there are no immediate profits to be derived from it. Because the NSF budget is so small, and because we have so many well-qualified scientists in need of funds, competition to obtain grants is fierce, and funding rates at the time this research was funded had fallen well below 10 percent. Congress decides the total amount of money that the NSF gets from the budget, but it does not decide which individual projects are funded—and neither does the president or his administration. Funding decisions are made by panels of scientists who are experts in the field and based on peer review by outsiders, often the competitors of the scientists who submitted the proposal. The review panel ranks proposals on their intellectual merits and impacts to society before making a recommendation. This recommendation is then acted upon by program officers and other administrators, who are also scientists, at the NSF. This brings us back to the ducks. Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks. Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for


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