Junk research is anything but rubbish and needs funds


INNOVATION TALK:THE FOUR-LETTER word “junk” can be a surprisingly misleading term. Junk on the face of it implies something to be discarded, dumped, got rid of, carrying no special value or importance.

In practice, however, we tend to be fond of our junk and sometimes part only very reluctantly with it.

Attic or garage clear-outs produce a lot of junk for disposal, but inevitably items are retrieved by a family member who doesn’t agree with an item’s junk status. It gets returned to the attic or the “junk room” often only to be dumped during the next clear-out.

Of course, one man’s junk is another man’s antique.

Those with more sense don’t do the dump run – they load up the car and sell off their junk at the nearest car boot sale. Stuff you don’t want often looks attractive to a collector, so both parties leave the field satisfied of accomplishing a good day’s work. Junk transformed.

We can all agree of course with the status of junk mail, or can we? Junk mail is almost universally considered an annoyance, something of no value whatsoever, real honest-to-God junk. There is obvious hostility towards it, given all the doors in Dublin that sport a “No Junk Mail Please” sign.

The almost always pointless offerings of pizza coupons, paving specialists, gardeners, junk hauliers (that word again) and such are moved quickly to the bin, but look at it another way. Someone was employed to deliver the junk mail and someone else was employed to print it. Perhaps another person had a job selling the printing services and another supplied the paper. And when all of these got paid they spent money in their local shops . . . and so it goes, the more people involved the better.

Then there is the matter of junk bonds, those obscure financial instruments spoken of in a knowing way by economists but a complete mystery to the rest of us. They are described as an investment prospect that carries high risk and as a consequence provides a high return – so long as the company offering them doesn’t go bust first.

The junk part seems to relate to the fact that there is nothing substantive to back them up, no associated assets, no inherent value. Even so investors around the world seem more than happy to invest in this junk and fully expect to make a killing when they do. European junk bonds worth about €50 billion were sold during 2010, and world junk bond investment must run into the hundreds of billions.

The central point to remember about junk bonds is that risk is good . . . or at least risk is expected and acceptable.

Taking that risk opens the possibility of being rewarded with a return on the investment.

Today, I introduce a new term, junk research. Remember it because it could be important for Ireland’s future.

Scientists conduct all sorts of research, just as financiers invest in all sorts of bonds. In both cases, if the risks are low so too will be the returns. A safe bet, an odds on favourite, might represent a win, but it will be a low-value win.

On the other hand, if you take a greater risk – in research as much as in finance – you stand a greater chance of achieving a spectacular return. Scientists would blanch at the thought of conducting “junk” research, but one could easily substitute the word “basic” or “blue-skies” when describing this work.

Nothing else has to change however. The researcher is working in new territory, at the frontier of their discipline. No one can predict what might come from it, whether a remarkable new discovery or – worst case – nothing at all.

It is a high-risk activity with no certainty. And yet if you don’t engage with junk research you are guaranteed to discover nothing. Scientists have to delve into unknown territory if they have ambitions of making breakthrough discoveries or delivering the next blockbuster drug.

Not so long ago, geneticists were happy to dismiss 95 per cent of the human genome, the parts that seemed inert, so-called junk DNA. They focused instead on the bits that did seem to do something, the genes, but this is now recognised as flawed thinking.

Scientists are finding that at least some of this junk has a role to play in how genes work and how the overall genome operates. What was junk is now described as “non-coding” DNA, a part of the genome whose function has yet to be determined.

Junk research will help uncover the true value and potential of junk DNA, provided it continues to be funded and doesn’t end up being starved of research money because it apparently has no obvious value.

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