Why Does Hanging With Grad Students Makes Me Support Funding for Scientific Research?

DAVIS, CA- I’m currently staying in Davis, California, with my friends Matt & Rachel, both doctoral students in the Graduate Group in Ecology at UC Davis. This is my third visit to this part of Northern California, and it always presents new and exciting adventures. From exploring Napa and Sonoma wine country, to camping in Lake Tahoe, to visiting San Francisco, to driving along the coast, this is a place to which I'm always keen to return for a bit.



One of my favorite reasons for visiting Davis is the exciting and novel perspective that Matt, Rachel, and their friends bring to the table. As ecologists, they care deeply about the environment and their studies. In the grand scheme of things I am keenly interested in the natural world and how it works, but I have a lot to learn by traveling with the ecology crew. Any question you have about the environment—shifting weather patterns, migratory routes of whales, animal identification, human interaction with reptiles—they will have a more detailed answer than you might care to hear.


Questions posed rhetorically when adventuring with laymen are answered seriously and with concrete conviction. Gee, I wonder what kind of bird that is is quickly answered with a dissertation on the migratory habits of the Arctic Tern, and a notethat they have the longest annual migration of any animal on Earth. 40,000 miles is impressive.


They have worked on their PhDs for five years at this point, and have another year or two to go. Doctoral students select a research question, in most cases a very specific one, and spend the length of their research studying that question. For example, Rachel studies the invasive Bullfrog, and how it affects the habitat of the California red-legged frog. Matt studies whether or not seabirds try to eat plastic trash strewn in the ocean because they are attracted to the smell, as opposed to the sight.


To an uninterested bystander, these questions might seem inane and unworthy of study. Yet in reality, doctoral students serve a very important purpose in the scientific community. Pared down, science is about experimenting over and over again, recording results, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions. If a hypothesis is wrong, you try again. If it’s wrong the next time, you try to learn more about why, and then you try again.


Each experiment adds to mankind's growing body of knowledge. Research in ecology is important because it allows us to better understand the circle of life: every living thing on this planet serves a purpose, and if the Bullfrog causes the California red-legged frog to go extinct, there will be consequences. Whether or not these consequences will have bearing on your life is anyone’s guess, but as rational, intelligent beings with the power to so negatively alter the course of the world, we can certainly, as a society, funnel some of our resources towards studying, understanding, and readjusting the impact we have on the environment.


In sum, this is why I’m in favor of funding scientific research, no matter how obscure it might seem to an outsider. The environment, among other scientific queries, will not be studied by for-profit companies--the only way to fund research that contributes to our communal body of knowledge is through public funding and private grants. Sure, it might seem like extraneous spending with no tangible return, throwing caution to the wind…but it also means that we are directing the substantial resources of our country to what we eventually hope will allow us to make more informed, knowledgeable decisions on humanity's impact on the environment in which we live.