Last week, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake released his list of top 20 science investigations that he considered most wasteful uses of government funds. The list is meant to be read. It’s written in fifth-grade language and filled with colorful cartoons of animals. When I see the report, I think of my own two children, 5-year old Harry and 3-year old Heidi, who will soon be able to read about the featured studies. When my children read it, they will learn two things. First, there is such a thing as wasteful science and that it is rampant. Of the 20 studies listed, there are likely thousands of others that beg for explanation and motivation.
The second thing that my children will learn is that three of the 20, or 15 percent of America’s most wasteful science, was contributed by their father. We watched dogs shake water from their bodies, measured the length of eyelashes and counted hair on dozens of animals, and studied bodily processes of several species.
My name is David Hu, and I am a “wasteful” scientist. This is my confession.
When I look at the nearly $3 million in research I have spent in the last 15 years of my life, I am staggered. It’s more money than my parents have made in their lifetime, more money than I will make in mine and more than my children will make in theirs. That I have spent these funds, and still have yet to convince others of the importance of this work, is my failure. My failure is part of a failed scientific system, where average people cannot understand what average scientists do.
Since 2012, I’ve been fascinated by how animals clean themselves. Because they’re all around us and cleaning is such a mundane activity, I can see how this obsession can be viewed as wasteful.
Yet most of what animals do is completely a mystery to scientists. When I was a student, I thought that 95 percent of all knowledge was already solved. But in fact, we only understand a small amount of the world around us, especially in the world of biology. For example, we can’t understand why a dog walks as easily as it does. Robots still cannot move as well as dogs, which have a complex interplay of tendons, bones and specially placed sensors that make it look like magic. The easiest questions are still among the most difficult to answer.
The topic of cleaning is a grand challenge for humanity. Effective cleaning strategies will be especially important for our next generation of clean energy. Solar panels accumulate dust at a regular rate, reducing in efficiency annually by 6 percent. There is no current good solution to the problem — our best is to clean the solar panels by hand with a squeegee.
Clothes dryers take 40 minutes and much of our daily household energy budget. But a wet dog can shake off 90 percent of water in a fraction of a second. If a dog were to use our method of drying, it would use a third of its daily calories. We discovered that a dog’s skin is especially loose and its hair is tuned to release drops with little expenditure of energy. The lesson from our wet dog study (which was named in the senator’s report) is that we should tune our drying materials to release water if we truly wish to save energy.
The watch list also identified our animal hair study. All animals and people have eyelashes, but no one was sure why. Our measurements and wind tunnel experiments showed that animals save energy by having lashes. Specifically, eyelashes reduce evaporation of the tear film of the eye by a factor of two, reducing blinking by a factor of two. Lashes also reduce deposition of dust by a factor of two. Our study shows that hairy surfaces may be our solution to dust accumulation. Including small hairs on solar panels can reduce efficiency losses.
These studies also have impact on non-engineering fields. The wet dog study shows us that animals have evolved to release water from their bodies, explaining their poor cleaning ability with chemicals like crude oil. It clearly demonstrates that they are not adapted to deal with pollutants.
The eyelash study has been cited by ophthalmologists. Understanding the function of eyelashes can influence our understanding of how allergens, such as pollen and dander, enter the eye. It can also help us to understand the danger of certain human diseases like madarosis, which involves the shedding of eyelashes.
Another benefit to this research is that it can be used for education, which is a grand challenge in our country. America lags behind China and India in the number of students that pursue science. The dog study was made into an educational module that used everyday examples to teach complex physics principles like centripetal force. At the bottom of this article are links for high school students and teachers to employ this science in their classes.
I enjoy doing research. I don’t try to hide it. Scientists are human beings with intrinsic interests, but we aren’t here to solely serve the public. We also have hunches when we’re onto something big. Sometimes we have to take left turns to get to a place faster. Solving difficult problems like green energy often requires revolutionary approaches. I use animals as a way to think about new solutions to these problems. In doing so, I have also created an international following of people who are falling in love with science again.
Asking questions about wastefulness is an important activity. Is it wasteful or not? I hope my children will ask this question when they read Senator Flake’s report. Like all research questions, this one should continue to be asked again and again. The answer may change as more evidence comes to light. The question should be tempered with solid research, review by peers and a commitment to starting and continuing a conversation with the scientists. A scientist has a duty to explain her work to others. I encourage the public to continue to ask researchers about the importance of their work.
I sincerely thank Senator Flake for continuing this conversation. If it leads to better communication between the public and scientists, he will have done us a great service. I hope my children can live in a world where scientists and the public are not at odds, but have a mutual understanding of the beauty and strangeness of nature, and how the pursuit of its oddities can lead to the benefit of all.