I’m often asked by (my non-scientist) friends or family what exactly I study. My answers vary in sophistication, from something outrageous (“I’m going to cure cancer in a few months”) to something more specific. Sometimes, some friends are more curious, and want to know gory details. So, I provide them.
Sometimes they understand and nod their heads acceptingly as I talk about basic research and looking for new mechanisms in basic biology. But invariably the question pops up “but what’s the use of studying this? Is it for making some drug or something? Otherwise, why study it?”.
My usual response would vary from describing the philosophies of science and the quests for new discoveries, to warm and fuzzy statements on the importance of furthering knowledge which may not be applicable for anything right now, but may be useful years down the line. Some fields of science are easy for people to wrap their minds around, and decide it is important. In others, it is not as obvious.
These statements are usually met with blank stares, skepticism, or, more often, a pitying nod that would translate to “you poor fool, why don’t you do something useful”. My friends who work in software or hardware technologies are particularly harsh, since they are used to pressing deadlines and bringing out and shipping products in finite time spans of months at most. They persist with questions like “so, will the stuff you’re doing be useful in 5 years time? Ten years? If you don’t know, why don’t you work on something more pressing, important and useful, like actually trying to cure cancer?”
Ah, well, in order to “cure” a disease, you need to actually know enough about it in order to do something about it. And finding out enough (where enough is so relative) to do something about it means you need to poke around asking different questions, which will all lead you down diverse paths. Most of them will not give you what you are looking for, but the knowledge you’ve gained will open up new fields and those may result in important discoveries that benefit mankind. What’s more, some of the biggest breakthroughs about basic concepts in biology, that have gone on to have a huge impact on human medicine have come not from studying human problems, but by studying yeast, or flies, or frogs, or worms, or mice.
The joy is in the quest for knowledge. As new knowledge is gained, applications for that knowledge will evolve on its own.