As a palaeontologist, sometimes it can be difficult to justify what you do to the people down the local pub. From personal experience, I’ve learnt that when surrounded by a teacher, plumber, mechanic and farmer, announcing that the EU just gave you a substantial pot of money to look at 200 million year old dinosaur footprints for three years will not be met by a firm handshake, slap on the back, and being bought a drink! It will end in snorts, exclamations of ‘how does that further the world?’ and… well… the intent to slap is in there.
And, let’s be honest, that’s a fair enough reaction. It’s exactly the same reaction I might give to the same scenario in the humanities and arts (though I am an uncultured so-and-so).
We can get on our high horses and extoll the virtues of advancing knowledge, whatever that knowledge may be. I am a firm believer in Carl Sagan’s words that “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself,” and that ultimately knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a genuinely worthwhile pursuit. But it really doesn’t hold water with someone who does something that is directly useful like the above mentioned trades.
It was rather good news to hear then, that a NERC grant on which I am Co-I was funded this month, in which a team led by Prof. Matthew Bennett at Bournemouth University are bringing together footprint and computer scientists to develop techniques and software solutions for forensic scientists to use at crime scenes.
Essentially, we’re going to be using digitization and analysis methods developed in studying dinosaur and hominid tracks to document and analyse footprints left at crime scenes. And our aim is to produce a software package, that’s both easy to use and cost-effective. In fact, it will be so cost-effective that we’re hoping to make the software freely available.
So it turns out I’ll be devoting about 10% of my time over the next year to actually doing something useful to society. Definitely not the reason I became a palaeontologist!
Of course, to focus on the direct things like this is to miss what we do contribute, aside from knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Little things that are less tangible go a long way. The software I use in simulating footprints, both FEA and DEM is generally used for looking at the deformation of material, or particle motions, and bugs that I find, or improvements I make or suggest (however little) ultimately benefit the engineers and scientists who use those programs for useful things.
And then there’s the teaching and inspiring of future scientists – Dinosaurs and fossils are a great way to get kids interested in doing science, even if they ultimately become climate scientists, or microbiologists. And the knowledge garnered through basic research is ultimately useful to other fields and professions – at Brown almost all faculty members (and many post-docs) of the functional morphology group taught medical students about anatomy; who better than those studying how organisms are put together?
What I’m trying to say, is that funding blue-skies science is incredibly important. By definition you don’t know if it will be directly useful when setting out. Sometimes it is, and that’s great. Sometimes, as with the work on footprints, it turns out to be tangentially important in that it inspires research that does have direct benefits and applications. And sometimes, even when there is no obvious benefit, there are still a myriad ways that the research has contributed to the world. Not least of which – at least as far as I’m concerned – is simply generating more knowledge so that the Cosmos (including ourselves) may understand itself just a little bit better.