Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

In Praise of the Strange

Odd-sounding or laughter-inducing research projects are commonly pushed into the spotlight as examples of wasteful government spending. (Remember comments in 2008 about fruit fly research or the shrimp-on-a-treadmill brouhaha from 2011?) Critics argue that such studies have no practical applications and shouldn't be recipients of governmental largesse.

"The problem with this view is that it assumes that human innovation arises in a logical fashion from planned research," Patricia Brennan, a research scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her colleagues write in BioScience. "History says otherwise: Innovations often arise from unlikely sources."

For instance, they note that Taq polymerase, a PCR workhorse of PCR, was found by researchers studying extremophiles in Yellowstone National Park, without any notion that their work would underpin much of modern molecular biology. Additionally, the study of Gila monster venom has lead to the development of a possible diabetes drugs.

Brennan has seen her own work ridiculed, the Boston Globe notes. She studies mating in ducks — male ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises that twist one way while female ducks have vagina that twist the other. She tells the Globe that her own basic research into sexual competition in ducks is interesting in and of itself, though as male ducks have an external sperm channel, it could lead to the discovery of new molecular medicines, but then again, it might not.

"Scientific innovations arise from a mix of curiosity, creativity, and knowledge, and the connection between basic and applied science is a network of knowledge that builds over time to generate life-changing ideas," Brennan and colleagues add in BioScience.