The Pure Science Boondoggle

I love science. I worked for a research group at Purdue for seven years. I did everything from digging holes for experiments in the field, to programming statistical analysis and complex computer models. We were doing erosion research. Stuff that had real-world practical applications. There are scads of scientists doing research with real-world applications today, and then there is “pure science.”

I value the results of pure science. There are many serendipitous discoveries from pure science that have changed our world. However, I still cringe when I read papers like “Land Snails as a Diet Diversification Proxy during the Early Upper Palaeolithic in Europe.” It’s a fascinating study. They’ve done some amazing analysis. My question is, what’s the point other than to maintain jobs for scientists? There are myriad pure science research projects that bring the same question to mind.


How much grant money and researcher time was spent on a study to only suggest “different chronological patterns of resource intensification and diet broadening along the Upper Palaeolithic in the Mediterranean basin.” I think too much time and money. How much more useful would those resources have been if they were focused on research for ways to produce potable water, when there are so many parts of the world where they don’t have enough. Or maybe on advanced battery technology, one of the limitations on energy sources that depend on the ever capricious wind and sun.

And as most researchers are want to do these days, this paper manages to throw in some political buzz. The current push for “sustainability” is admirable, but still political. The snail paper throws in this little paragraph in the discussion section:

“On the other hand, the biometric analysis of I. alonensis shell widths and heights indicates a narrow selection pattern of land snail sizes. The comparative analysis between the archaeological specimens and modern land snails raised in the laboratory suggest that most of the gathered individuals were older than one year, and those younger than 45 weeks were not gathered at all. Such a strong age selection pattern suggest sustainable exploitation of I. alonensis based on knowledge of its reproductive cycle.”

So this research found evidence to “suggest” that humans in Europe, in the early upper palaeolithic, were worried about the sustainability of the snail population? Maybe they just wanted snails large enough to make a mouthful. That’s my suggestion. I find the snail researcher’s suggestion ironic, since other researchers are anxious to blame humans for the extinction of prehistoric animals like the mammoth.

I’d like to see research grants continue to fund pure science. My question is, why can’t it at least be directed to some field of study that applies to current real-world problems, which our planet desperately needs solutions to, instead of speculation on the eating habits of humans who’ve been dead for tens of thousands of years? It can and it should.



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