For the Sake of Science

I’ve got quite the name in Johannesburg (Melville to be precise): Laura the poop-scooper, the dog-shit researcher, or the Dutch dung-digger. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of it, but indeed, I make the best out of a turd freshly baked by the most endangered carnivore in South Africa. Other people just see a brown pile to avoid stepping in, I instead see steam coming off and the world of DNA research opening for me. And it leaves me with a lot of shit to do… The jokes don’t harm me. It only gets difficult when people start asking me the whys and the whatfores. If I’m so concerned about conserving the last of these animals standing, how is genetic research going to help?

It’s a question that I struggle with and normally avoid answering by faking an acute attack of bladder pressure, an unexpected call from a long-lost family member whom I have yet to find a name for, or the note that I have forgotten to feed my imaginary dog. Because the interrogators have a point: how do I avoid forests from being cut down and our last wild dogs from being poached, from the safety of my air-conditioned and unlimited-coffee lab? The thing is that I can’t. When people do insist on an answer, I normally start spitting out words such as allelic diversity, genetic drift and gene pools… enough to make them move to another table or order a round of tequila.

I do have my reasons and believes for doing what I do, and I think research is the first step to conservation, but I also think that science these days is often redundant and lacking in any higher goal. In cases, good cash is spent on proving things we already know or things that don’t really matter in the end. The world of academics is a world of its own I realized when I got caught up in it. During my study in ecology at the Free University of Amsterdam, I noticed that including ‘conservation’ into your research was being compared with hanging onto astrology or believing in aliens. Instead, research should be about enhancing knowledge, jerking off at statistics, publishing papers, and bragging about impact factors. Academics have replaced drinking alcohol with reading articles, watching movies with attending public lectures, and begging for phone numbers with begging for co-authorship.

I support the dusty article-culture (let society please become a bit more aware of what’s going on), but how often have I seen big bursaries being spent on useless research? Science for the sake of science, I guess. Because really, what’s the purpose of knowing that red king crabs move at the speed of <0.01 to 0.15m per second, up to a distance of 270m per hour? (Jørgensen et al. 2007) And has it enlightened our world to know that when you provide your hamster from food long enough, it will eventually choose food over sex (“don’t we all”; Schneider et al. 2007). And what is the benefit of comparing the degree of positive emotional expression at high school pictures with the success of marriage at an older age? (Harker & Keltner 2001) Perhaps, if they’d inform future teenagers about the results when the picture is taken, it might save us ladies some crying tissues and vibrator batteries. Furthermore, did we need research to tell us that larger portions of food lead to more energy intake? (For both normal-sized and overweight people that is; Rolls et al. 2002). Last one (I can go on forever): how about the discovery that five-month-old chimpanzees prefer harmonious over inharmonious music? (Sugimoto et al. 2010). I’m not joking, studies like these have often taken up several years and multiple authors.

I’m not alone in this. As a humorous counter-part of the Nobel Prize, scientists now have the opportunity to win the IG Nobel prize as well. Research that doesn’t make us smart, but laugh instead. Last year, Mabuchi et al. (2012) studied the friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, in case a person were to step on a banana skin on the floor. The previous year, it was proven that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely it is to stand up. More interestingly, once a cow stands up, it is difficult to predict just when it will lie down again (Tolkamp et al. 2010). The year before, scientists discovered the mind-blowing fact that leaning to the left makes the Eiffel tower seems smaller (“please be aware when visiting Paris”; Eerland et al. 2011).

So then in my case, maybe I should just reply by saying that I think wild dogs are cute and fluffy, that genetic poop-research is a way for me to make money, and that if dung-DNA leads to me getting my PhD I might get the chance to do a bit more for our green planet. Because we have to start somewhere in the end. Looking back at the Middle Ages, research of any sort has at least opened our narrow minds, nurtured our human curiosity, and challenged the spell we’ve put upon ourselves called religion. I would maybe only advise people to spend resources a bit more carefully. If people can’t define the purpose and use of their study within 15 minutes, maybe just donate the bursary to WWF or the Red Cross, and have a cold beer instead. And for all the academics still hanging in there: “The chance of finding out what is really going on is so remote that the only thing to do is get a sense of it and keep yourself occupied.”

 

Eerland A, Guadualupe TM, Zwaan RA (2011) Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation. Psychological Science 22 (12): 1511-14.

Harker LA, Keltner D (2001) Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of personality and social psychology 80 (1): 112-124.

KMabuchi K, Tanaka K, Uchijima D, Sakai R (2012) Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin. Tribology Online 7 (3): 147-151.

Rolls BJ, Morris EL, Roe L (2002) Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women. American society for clinical nutrition 76 (6): 1207-1213.

Schneider JE, Casper JF, Barisich A, Schoengold C, Cherry S, Surico J, DeBarba A, Fabris F, Rabold E (2007) Food deprivation and leptin prioritize ingestive and sex behavior without affecting estrous cycles in Syrian hamsters. Hormones and Behavior 51 (3): 413-427.

Sugimoto T, Kobayashi H, Nobuyoshi N, Kirivama Y, Takeshit H, Nakamura T, Hashiya K (2010) Preference for consonant music over dissonant music by an infant chimpanzee. Primates 51(1): 7-12.

Terje Jørgensen T, Løkkeborg S, Fernö, A, Hufthammer M (2007) Walking speed and area utilization of red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) introduced to the Barents Sea coastal ecosystem). Developments in Hydrobiology 195 (195):17-24.

Tolkamp BJ, Haskell MJ, Langford FM, Roberts DJ, Morgan CA (2010) Are Cows More Likely to Lie Down the Longer They Stand? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 124 (1-2): 1–10.