Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Frivolous research

TED posts the occasional 'best of the rest' on its Facebook page, and directed me to this fascinating talk by Prof Tim Birkhead. He describes a little of how we know what we know about birds. For example, only male canaries sing. But, when synthetic testosterone became available in the 1940s, unscrupulous canary breeders found that giving their female canaries a shot would cause them to burst into song for a time. In the 1970s, some researchers questioned how this could be, and found that the shots of testosterone caused new neurones to grow in the birds' brains. Scientists thought that was totally impossible; the conventional wisdom was that the neurones we're born with in our brain, are the ones we will die with. So one frivolous study of canaries changed the direction of neurobiology; if you know how to grow new neurones, then you can repair brain damage.

So to quote Birkhead: "In today's climate, the government is looking very closely at the kind of research that they fund, and they think that things like studying birdsong is kind of frivolous research. What possible economic benefits could there be from that? But in fact, birdsong is one of the most powerful examples of why you should fund 'frivolous' research, because the study of birdsong holds the promise of a cure for Alzheimers."

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