As grant applications within science become increasingly competitive, the pressure grows to highlight the direct benefits of one’s research to human health and prosperity. These are the impact statements–is your research going to directly contribute to the “cure”?
Unfortunately, this attitude obscures a very important source of new knowledge and tools–simple curiosity and ‘play’. It is important to remember we don’t always know what we are doing when we dive into research. In fact, simple exploration of interesting concepts can have very important knock-on benefits!
For example, as we improve technology for leisure, developing more powerful smartphones and more realistic video games, we are also creating tools which can feed back into health and medicine applications. Smartphone apps are a very common example of this feedback. CloudUPDRS, an Android app designed by George Roussos and colleagues at Birbeck, University of London, takes advantage of the smartphone’s gyroscopic sensors to conduct frequent physical tests for Parkinson’s patients. Tying these physical tests and the associated self-assessment questionnaires to this constant companion device help researchers track symptoms and disease progression regularly and over an extended period of time.
Developments in smartphones for leisure made this tool possible, but the feedback loop between leisure technology, health research, and medicine extends beyond our phones. Virtual reality, used for everything from gaming to drone flying, can be used to help train surgeons.
It is very important to keep investing in science and technology as a whole, even when the benefits to us aren’t immediately apparent. Encouraging play and building tools for play can help us creatively solve important problems. Restricting funding to “the most relevant” research angles may be an important investment strategy, but it may also risk restricting our creativity. Curiosity beyond ourselves helps us develop new knowledge –while our questions may not directly apply to a “cure”, they may incidentally equip us with tools we didn’t know we needed.
CloudUPDRS is explained in the New Scientist Article: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2123459-super-fast-parkinsons-app-will-track-symptoms-more-closely/