Opinion: Why penguins don't explode and the need for basic research

Image by Jay Ruzesky

When government funding is tight, it gets harder and harder to get grants to perform fundamental research. The government always wants to see outcomes, and this means that the grants committees need to show outcomes. In turn, this often leads to research funding bodies doing one of three things:

  • Only funding research that's nearly complete
  • Only funding well-known researchers with a track record of outcomes
  • Only funding research in areas that are already showing promise

Now while at first glance, that might sound a reasonable way to proceed, it's not.

If you only fund research that's nearly complete, you are more likely to get an outcome, but what you are funding is development, not research.

If you are only funding researchers with a track record of outcomes, and in areas already showing promise, you will struggle to get great outcomes.

The best outcomes in science have always come out of left-field. As an example, you might assume that MRIs were developed by medical technologists. However, the work on those came from work by chemists and physicists, based on earlier work by other physicists and an astronomer. None of these people were working on medical technology at the time.

As for fundamental research, one of the best thesis titles I ever saw was "Why Penguins Don't Explode".

Famous image from the wonderful Monty Python's Flying Circus
Famous image from the wonderful Monty Python's Flying Circus

Now before you scoff at anyone proposing a topic like that, it was accepted knowledge for a long time that penguins must only dive down about 20 or 30 metres. But this guy tracked them and found they dived up to 500 metres. He was fascinated by how anything living can dive down 500 metres and not implode, and conversely, how does it come screaming up to the top of the water and not explode. Penguins also don't get the bends.

So how does that work?

We need people noticing these things and researching them. We might have to fund a thousand of these projects to get anything concrete back. But whole new industries can come from the handful that get an outcome.

BTW: I went looking for the final thesis but can't find it at present. My guess is that the academic fraternity made him "tone down" the title of the work.

 

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