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Science in Mind

Researcher comes to defense of science, curiosity

Patricia Brennan, a UMass Amherst researcher studying duck penises, found herself in the unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Patricia Brennan, a UMass Amherst researcher studying duck penises, found herself in the unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses.

Basic science research projects often become political punching bags, trotted out during budget talks as examples of frivolous spending of taxpayer money. Targets of the mockery can vary so much from season to season that it is hard to keep track of what is considered wasteful in a given year, but the tone is usually the same: a headline without context. The science of duck penises? Parisian fruit-fly research? Moth pheromones? Really?

Now, the researcher who studies duck penises has spoken out, penning a powerful argument in the journal BioScience in defense of oddball science driven by curiosity.

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Patricia Brennan is a research scientist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the bizarre and fascinating sexual battle that occurs between male and female ducks when they mate, with genitalia that can seem at war with each other. A male duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew, and a female duck’s vagina winds in the opposite direction.

Her work became the butt of political jokes when a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study duck penises attracted the attention of a conservative news website. Brennan found herself in the somewhat unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses, and saw a need for greater engagement with the public.

There is a huge zeitgeist for research that translates existing knowledge into cures, treatments, and technologies. That is in part because it is easy to explain the relevance to the public: It might cure Alzheimer’s or cancer or lead to a technology that transforms society and creates jobs. Who could argue against those lofty goals?

But the idea that marshaling existing knowledge into products will solve the biggest problems facing society is naive, Brennan argues. Translational research is essential, but it is just the top of the pyramid. And that pyramid depends on a large foundation of basic research that provides the surprising insights and knowledge that can translate into important advances.

“Although seeking out projects that are likely to lead to applications may be a good strategy for securing funding, we maintain that reducing our ability to creatively examine unique biological phenomenon will ultimately harm not only education and health but also the ability to innovate — a major driver of the global economy,” Brennan and colleagues wrote in their essay.

Brennan says that perhaps her favorite example of basic research that unexpectedly led to a practical application is a study of geothermal vents in Yellowstone National Park in the 1960s. Researchers were studying photosynthetic organisms that lived in extreme conditions, which led to the discovery of Taq polymerase, an enzyme that is routinely used to make DNA replicate in a lab dish.

The standard laboratory technique that relies on the enzyme is used in forensics, medicine, basic biology, and agriculture.

The point of science is to make discoveries, and if it were already known which areas would yield insights that would be useful, scientific inquiry would not be necessary. Researchers could simply work on developing existing knowledge. But the point of science is that our knowledge is incomplete, and filling in the gaps is enriching, for understanding more about the world we live in as well as creating a knowledge base that will turn out to be useful. Often, those uses are totally unexpected. It might seem frivolous to study Gila monster venom, for example, but that work has helped lead to a diabetes drug called exenatide.

In an interview, Brennan said that examining sexual conflict between male and female ducks provides a fascinating insight into evolutionary biology and sexual competition. That information is interesting in its own right, but she also notes that duck penises, which have an external sperm channel, may ultimately lead to new molecular insights that could be deployed in medicine. Or they might not. But unless scientists learn, no one will ever know.

Brennan points to research into avian genitalia that may already have a medical impact. Colleagues are examining why chickens do not have penises and ducks do, which may provide clues to better understand hypospadias, a birth defect in which boys’ penises are malformed.

Other studies of basic phenomenon in the natural world have also led to applications. There is a new adhesive based on the gecko’s remarkable ability to scale walls. Mantis shrimp may hold clues for personal armor. Cuttlefish may give clues on how to develop better camouflage. Researchers’ use of simple robots is inspired by insects.

As she has looked more deeply into the history of the political mockery of science, Brennan has found that her colleagues seem to be fighting back less, in part because the attacks have become so common, superficial, and faddish. Most scientists realize that their peers and the funding agencies will continue to respond not to political posturing but to the scientific validity of the work, so they may not bother to take a stand.

“The flip side is that people are like, ‘Well, maybe I don’t need to do much about it because it will go away; the press will forget and they’ll move on to get their next target,’ ” Brennan said. “We need to fight back despite the fact the personal and professional repercussions might not be so big anymore. . . . We are missing an opportunity to educate people.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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