research is useful, really....

As any researcher can attest, many people outside of academia wonder what is the use of us lab rats, wandering in lab coats in helpless pursuit of the perfect assay to prove our hypothesis. When asked: “what is the finality of your work ?” Our standard answer is: "without the contribution of basic science research, one would not be able to efficiently fight diseases and specifically in my case, help find a cure for liver cancer." That is a blatant lie, of course because there is no way in heck that my current research would contribute significantly to the fight against liver cancer. So I was trying to find the proper analogy to explain the purpose of my work to the world outside ( that’s mostly my family and my 2 friends). So here is my rather ludicrous attempt at a parallel with the real world but before you click away hear me out:
The effort to look for a cure for liver cancer is akin to the fight against discrimination...
First let’s explain a few things: one famous analogy about research in molecular biology is the one with the 10 blindfolded scientists trying to describe an elephant by touching it: no one is wrong but no one has the complete answer either. The fundamental vs applied research paradigm: fundamental research seeks to understand they way cells behave. Applied research finds a way to fix “misbehaving” cells. As a result, fundamental research usually gets less money than the applied counterpart because we do not cure anything therefore we cannot sell anything.
Now, for the similarities between trying to find a cure for cancer and fighting discrimination in society: liver cancer is a plague on society; to determine the exact causes of it is complex and the tipping point towards the noxious phase is even harder to pinpoint. Finally, many factors have to be taken into account when studying the liver cancer cells. Well, discrimination is no different: plague? Definitely; causes and noxious phase are nearly impossible to determine and so many factors involved (race, gender, political agenda and economic context). Moreover, the fight against discrimination does not produce direct fiduciary dividend and is mostly public funded. See the similarities yet ? OK here is the kicker: just as there is no end to the fight against cancer, there is no end to the fight against discrimination. Cancer finds a way to evolve and beat the cell safeguard system, discrimination evolved from segregation to deportation of immigrants. However, the most striking similarity for me is that the fight starts by understanding the most “upstream” detail in the cause of the “disease” and counter the process at its source.
So yes, my work is quite miles away from finding a cure for liver cancer. And so is the work of an elementary school teacher with respect to the getting rid of discrimination. However, her education of the young minds is a critical contribution to keeping bigotry under control. And I am hoping my studying of the most "upstream" event in liver cancer will contribute in a similar fashion to keep it under control.

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PS: elephant cartoon above is not about science but it could be applied to science as well :).


  1. I know research is useful however I enjoy teasing my family and friends involved in research about the number of people who will read their paper whenever they gloat about a publication in this or that prestigious, very selective journal. :-)

  2. sipakv> very true :) we have our own little "tour d'ivoire" where we think that our little publications actually matter in the grand scheme of things. I think the purpose of my rant was 1) to convince myself that spending all this time is not a total waste of energy. (Ah the power of denial ! :) ) 2) to know what to tell my parents next time they ask me what I do exactly.

  3. Ton post me fait trop rire. Eh oui, ou comment expliquer une PCR (ce que c'est et pourquoi)afin de déterminer l'action d'un gène sur la digestion, puis sur la mortalité d'un être vivant?! J'y ai renoncé :)
    Tout comme j'ai pris la tangente via une double compétence, loin du monde de la recherche maintenant ;) Je ne suis pas sensible à la gloire, ni pour voir mon nom en première position et surtout pas ailleurs dans un rapport ou une publication :D
    Mais keep on, ça ne peut qu'être mieux la recherche aux US!

  4. >tattum,
    je ne suis pas sur que le monde de la recherche soit mieux ici mais il est certainement mieux remunere :P. Helas,si one considere que la question purement financiere, la recherche , c'est vraiment la misere et ton virement vers la double competence (que j'explore aussi activement) est tres judicieux.