I went for my morning stroll this morning, checking out spider haunts. My garage is still destitute, with nothing but dead husks and cobwebs. I walked over to the science building, and checked a few places that I knew were crannies where cobwebs and insect parts and spider poop could usually be found — nothing! They were shiny clean! I guess our magnificent custodial staff had been scrubbing unusually thoroughly for commencement. I’ve still got my lab spiders looking sleek and plump, but they’re all female, and I’m desperate for male spider juice right now.
I consoled myself by making my final travel details to the American Arachnological Society meeting next month. I’ll get my spider fix one way or another.
Then I was reading a This American Life episode about spinelessness. It’s about the vertebrate bias in research publications and funding. Malcolm Rosenthal is deploring the fact that invertebrates are relatively neglected.
Our findings can be summarized in two major points:
First: The warm-blooded vertebrate skew was intense. Almost 85 percent of described species are arthropods, but more than 70 percent of publications were on vertebrates. Birds and mammals alone accounted for well over 50 percent of publications, despite representing less than 2 percent of all animal species.
Second: In a world where citations are used to measure impact, publishing on understudied systems comes at a cost to the researcher. Publications on vertebrates received more citations on average than arthropod papers. They were also far more likely to be “blockbuster” publications with more than 100 citations.
He’s right. You can’t deny that there is a strong bias at work. Back in the early days of zebrafish work, we often made the argument that these are honorary invertebrates when we were talking to other developmental biologists, because they do have a lot of the advantages of model systems in that group, but in our grant proposals we turned around and emphasized that these were true vertebrates, and that they had the virtues of relevance to research in human health and disease. We did our best to straddle that line.
And while Rosenthal’s evidence is true, I think he’s missing the real distinction. This bias is a consequence of a fundamental difference between basic and applied research. Basic research is all the stuff he and I love, where we just care about how the world in all of its richness works. Applied research has a focus on science that helps us, the human species, and because we’re such selfish assholes, that’s where the lion’s share of the moolah goes. Look at the names of the big funding agencies: the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute. That’s where you apply if you want to make a case for research that contributes to our understanding of human health and disease. You can apply for research grants to study, for instance, zebrafish, or even insects, but you’re going to have to link it with some relevance to Homo sapiens.
You want to study some other organism, because it is interesting in and of itself, and might tell you something fundamental about biology? You apply to the National Science Foundation.
The budget for NIH is $37 billion. The budget for NSF is $7.8 billion. Enough said. Even if you convince the agency to fund your research on some fascinating, little known organism, some jerk in the legislature is going to proxmire you and whine about wasting money on bugs. If you avoid the spotlight, you’re still going to that family reunion this summer where Uncle Dork is going to sneer at you and wonder what the hell you do for a living.
I agree that there should be more support for more diversity in topics in science, and I really want to see more support for basic science, but that’s going to require a huge shift in science priorities. I’m all for a National Spider Institute that is well-funded by congress, though.