Mountains, marathons, and manuscripts: why I do fundamental research.

There are many metaphors that use running a marathon or climbing a mountain to describe the process of ecological research. This post will not have any. No, this post will ignore linguistic devices and will shine the spotlight on behavioural psychology instead.

I recently ran my second marathon. To non-runners, my decision to join a mass of sinewy joggers in running 42 km, just to end up where I started, seems futile. I’ll admit it; there probably aren’t any real-word scenarios where the ability to run for three-and-a-half hours is even remotely useful. And no one will claim that 7am training runs in the sub-zero Belgian winter is fun. So, if it isn’t useful and it isn’t fun, why do I still do it?


(Me, at the finish of the Antwerp Marathon, 3h21m after starting)

One could say the same about mountain climbing. Climbing a mountain is, literally, an uphill struggle. Even when the view from the summit is amazing, you rarely spend much time there. Instead, you turn around and go all the way back to where you started. Why, then, do mountaineers still torture themselves doing something that clearly offers more physical strain than tangible gains?


(Looking down on Golden Gate Highlands National Park from Generaalskop/General’s Peak)

This argument can be turned towards fundamental ecological research. Why do ecologists spend so much time with their noses in books or staring through a microscope (or at a blinking cursor on a computer screen)? Fundamental ecology is a form of self-torture. Experiments fail and papers are rejected. Weekends are wasted producing manuscripts that might, at best, be read by a small circle of peers. Fundamental research findings rarely change anything beyond a narrow sub-discipline. So, why do I do it?

Why do I run marathons? Why do I climb mountains? Why do I do fundamental ecological research? All questions have the same answer: because I can. Marathons, mountains and manuscripts are not means to an end; they are their own ends.

The self-fulfilment of knowing that months of training culminate at a finish-line on a random Sunday afternoon makes it all worthwhile. We find strength in every step up the hillside, not just the last one at the summit. Most importantly, the thrill of solving a unique problem, or discovering something new, transcends our need for recognition from others. It’s all about the process; not the outcome.

The famous mountaineer, George Leigh Mallory, said it much more elegantly than I can:

The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this: ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be: ‘it is no use.

‘There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purpose of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it.

We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use.

So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.

What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

So there you have it: my romanticised reason for doing fundamental research: sheer joy. I am proud of it. Furthermore, I don’t think that anybody should justify their reasons for doing fundamental research either. Those with the same values and ambitions will automatically “get it” and, for the rest, no amount of explaining will convince them otherwise.

In the same breathe; however, I don’t expect others to necessarily share my love for fundamental research (or running or mountain climbing). I believe that fundamental ecologists should take responsibility for our own choices. We have an obligation to be honest about our own motivations and stop over-selling our work as the panacea to some terrible poison when it clearly isn’t. Don’t lie about some indirect application to climate change/habitat fragmentation/biodiversity loss when there obviously isn’t one. If research doesn’t have any immediate utility, then be honest about it. There are NO excuses for dishonesty, even if transparency might jeopardise future research funding.

I’ll end this post with one of my favourite excerpts from Richards Feynman’s 1974 Caltech commencement address. He was recalling a conversation with a colleague about the application value of his research:

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘there aren’t any.’

He said, ‘Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.’

I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

2 thoughts on “Mountains, marathons, and manuscripts: why I do fundamental research.

    • Yep, self-fulfilment might be seen as a selfish reason to do fundamental research. It probably is selfish because there are so many pressing applied issues out there that need to be resolved with much more urgency.

      Nevertheless, scientists have an obligation to be honest about there motivations and the utility of their work; so, I will not pretend that my fundamental research is a panacea for so many conservation maladies…

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