Why should taxpayers be responsible for your unicorn research?*

What my relatives think my job is like | Image by Anley Piers and Faery Sola on Flickr

What my relatives think my job is like | Image by Anley Piers and Faery Sola on Flickr

My advisor was in the news recently talking about a cool project our lab is working on. The piece did a great job of laying out some of the practical applications of the project, so I sent it around to some of my relatives. One of my aunts, who used to be an out and out climate change denier but whose position now seems to be more that “climate might be changing now, but humans aren’t at fault,” responded with something that really hurt me:

You could not get away with not believing in climate change and be in the program you are in and have her for an advisor.

My advisor doesn’t do the work she does because of climate change, but my aunt is absolutely right – I couldn’t get a job with her if I didn’t believe in climate change. And not just her – I’d be hard pressed to find an advisor anywhere in the world who would take me. Just as I’d have the same problem if I argued that evolution didn’t happen or that the Grand Canyon was created during Noah’s flood or man never landed on the moon. It’s hard to get a job doing science if you can’t demonstrate at least a basic understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology and the ability to evaluate evidence in your field.

But science isn’t an ossified, organized beast. It’s a growing, evolving, tangled thing. I absolutely do not hold the same views on everything as my advisor or other scientists – scientists spend a great deal of our time arguing. We love proving each other wrong, are frustrated and delighted when the data prove our own hypotheses wrong, and are endlessly curious about how the world works. I mean, we aren’t infallible. There are absolutely cases of scientific fraud or plain old stupid mistakes. But most of us are trying damn hard to do a good job.

As far as climate change goes, we know that higher levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide keep heat from the sun’s heat from leaving the earth. We’ve understood this since the late 1800s. Plants take in CO2 and turn it into leaves and wood and such. If conditions are right, dead plants turn into fossil fuels over millions of years. We dug a hell of a lot of it out of the ground and burned it back to CO2. Thus, an increase in the average global temperature.

I get angry when people deny that climate change is happening. I’m not angry at my aunt – I’m angry that money and general human psychology makes it so hard for people to respond to slow, long term disasters. I’m angry about false equivalence in journalism that confuses the general public about climate change. I’m angry that weather will become more extreme throughout my lifetime and that it will make the world a more difficult place to live in. I’m angry that all my research has to be filtered through the lens of climate change because the climate has already begun changing and it makes my questions harder to answer. I’m angry that my grandparents’ and parents’ generation hasn’t worked harder to reduce CO2 emissions, since the resilient, walkable, energy efficient cities we need to build to avoid/slow/adapt toclimate change would improve quality of life and the environment even if climate change wasn’t already happening. I’m angry that thousands of scientists can spend lifetimes studying and explaining climate change instead of the millions of other interesting things there are to research because they care about the world and the people in it –  and that a good chunk of the US public is still convinced it’s a hoax.

The last few paragraphs are pretty much what I fired off to my aunt when I got her email. Usually I try to be all calm and reasonable and, you know, like a scientist. But I’ve been working hard lately and I’m tired. I’m doing difficult, highly skilled work for a smidge above minimum wage because I believe that the world is a beautiful and interesting place and I want to understand it and make it better. And it makes me feel awful that there are people – many of them people I know and love – who believe that the work I do is irrelevant, useless, or even imaginary.

* No offense intended to anyone studying mythology. I’d love to read your papers.


  1. Colin says:

    Might there be a link to the cool coverage of y’all’s science in the news? Also, enjoyed the post as usual.

  2. Mike says:

    I was reading some article recently about how the conservative rejection of science truly began as an attempt to preserve tobacco company profits, which is I think part of the story but leaves out the Scopes Trial and even earlier events out of the mix. I’d also add the humanities in there, which I think are being rejected for similar reasons overall (threaten capitalist profits).

    Sort of related to what you wrote, I got told repeatedly as a kid that playing with computers was a “waste of time” and that I “should be doing other things,” but that “playing” so condemned in my youth has been responsible for my career, meeting my partner and of course for meeting you.

    Yeah, not really a font of wisdom is the opinion of most people. But also it can’t be ignored because the propaganda machine is most attractive to those with the least knowledge.

  3. Ah, yes. A state legislator once asked me what good it did the citizens of Illinois to pay me to study rainforest biology. First I pointed out that political boundaries were a human artifact and that indeed things that happened in the tropics were biologically/environmentally significant to us. Our students may actually be interested to learn of things that happen ourside the boundaries of our state. Biology is a whole world interprise, and we cannot deprive students of this perspective. Second, my pursuit of research was necessary to provide students with opportunities to apprentice with a master for purposes of learning how to do science regardless of the subject. Research programs are difficult, time-consuming, and arduous, and you only keep up with them if it is something that greatly interests you personally. Thirdly, the resources that have allowed me to do this research have come llargely from non-state sources. Fourthly such experiences have improved my ability and effectiveness as a teacher of biology. Lastly, it is very hard to say what types of research will prove “useful” or important in the future. History teaches us that serendipity plays a big role in science. It was also clear that legislators don’t like it very much when their “employees” are so uppity as to challenge their positions and assumptions.

    • sarcozona says:
        At the same time I think Uncle Sam should be paying for more research, I feel weird getting paid by the government to study something that may, indirectly, make the world a little tiny bit better maybe someday when other people are adding up the money left on their EBT card and counting days til the end of the month.

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