The downside of the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” argument

On the PBS Newshour Duke University biologist Sheila Patek just made a passionate plea for “why knowledge for the pure sake of knowing is good enough to justify scientific research” using her own research into mantis shrimp as an example. While I support public funding for basic research, Patek makes a convoluted and ultimately harmful to her own case argument.

Her argumeent is convoluted because on the one hand she argues for knowledge for knowledge’s sake while at the same time arguing that the value of her research may lie in the application to new materials and military technology. What is shown about her mantis shrimp research suggests these applications may well become real and hence are a good justification for her research.

I have yet to see a successful grant proposal for research that does not in one way or another suggests some usefulness of the results, as removed from applications as they maybe. Such utility is needed to balance off the multitude of competing grant proposals and the better motivated proposals will get the money. Any other research is a personal hobby and should not be funded by taxpayer money.

Patek’s argument is also annoying to this engineering researcher, because she ignores the process that leads to those tangible benefits. Turning her research on how mantis shrimp fight into a military technology would mean merging multiple research streams, at a minimum physics and materials science, and probably electronics and computer science as well, before any new weapons could be built. While she mentions it, she seems unconcerned about it.

There is nothing wrong with specializing in one particular corner of science, here biology, and leaving follow-on research to other researchers, but you can’t ignore those researchers. If in your grant proposal you suggest tangible benefits one day, you should be thinking about the next steps towards that goal, even if you aren’t performing them yourself, and prepare your research and its presentation for that journey.

Sadly, the mantra of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” suggests that a researcher is not caring for what’s to follow. Anyone who short-circuits discussions about public funding using this mantra hurts their cause by not being sincere about the suggested benefits. This of course spills over to other researchers who are actually hard at work on this, giving arguments to those politicians who want to cut research funding and make it subject to partisan interests.



  1. Jorge Aranda Avatar

    Very true.
    Also, a more direct criticism is that this argument is actually for doing research for (indirect) tangible benefits, not for knowledge’s sake. It is one thing to argue for funding mantis shrimp research (for instance) merely because it’s an interesting area and we are curious beings; it is a different thing to argue for said research because hey, perhaps your nation will be economically or militarily more powerful if you let me carry it on.
    If this second, utilitarian argument is what is actually being offered, then the proper evaluation of grant proposals should also be merely utilitarian. But frankly I’m afraid this may not result in more mantis shrimp research, nor in research in many other domains that, I would argue, should be funded and studied (for *actual* knowledge’s sake!).

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