The NASA arsenic bacterium story has blogger Hannah Waters wondering why science stories sometimes get overhyped and "out of hand," and she says she's come to the conclusion that researchers feel the need to be "purposeful" while doing their work. Many scientists, herself included Waters says, are more interested in understanding the biological processes of an organism, not because it will be of use to mankind, but because they simply want to know that's going on. "I'd be happy to cure cancer along the way if I can, but in terms of my own goals and what is possible during my brief stint in this field, I just want to understand this system a little bit better than when I started," she says. Historically speaking, science wasn't always done with a specific purpose in mind, Waters adds. Charles Darwin didn't start out with the idea of explaining evolution in mind — it wasn't until many years after his trip on the Beagle that he even formulated his theories. Unfortunately, Waters says, researchers need government grants to fund their research, and since public money is being used, grants have to be written in a way that shows their ultimate benefit to the public. On the one hand, she adds, this keeps researchers accountable, but on the other hand, it doesn't allow for much basic research. Purposeful science is all good and well, Waters says, but there's still a lot of stuff we don't even understand yet.
Full disclosure: Hannah Waters is a minority investor in GenomeWeb who has no editorial input in our publications.