We are often asked, "Why do you work on this topic? What use is it?"
More often than not, scientists are flummoxed how to entertain these queries. Sometimes we cringe.
On some levels, the question is valid. Especially in the context of resources...money. We cringe at these questions because we have asked this to ourselves many times. And the reasons we come up with are not really satisfactory to ourselves and hence we make a bad job of answering those when someone else feels the same way about our research.
For example, I have asked myself this...a thousand times: What good is understanding what goes on in a wasp society when our own society is so ridden with problems? So what if wasps have a conflict-free succession?
Having no answers, I still find it surprising why such questions are asked only to scientists. By this logic, anything that is not useful from an antropocentric, utilitarian point of view is useless. Modern art. Rennaissance art. Fiction. Music. Plays and films. Eiffel Tower.
Why aren't these questions asked to other professionals? Because I believe the society doesn't associate utility with their creation. Their creation is the end point and its usefulness if any is an added bonus. Science on the other hand is supposed to be instrumental in progress and alleviation of problems and hence looked upon from a very different angle.
There is an extra problem associated specifically with ecology. The moment you say I am a scientist, people ask you about the subject. You say ecology, and they know what you do. This instant connect is a boon and a bane. Boon because they are instantly interested. Bane because they instantaneously think they know what is it that you do. Worse is, some people think they can take a call on whether it is useful or not, whether it is interesting or not. Utter astronomy or astrophysics instead of ecology and people will give you the required leeway coz it is understood that astro disciplines are pursued more as an interest rather than a useful subject.
One thing I believe people miss out on when they meet a scientist is that we are full of curiosity. We want to know and unearth. About how's, why's, and other w's. We want to know the truth, if I may say so. If a philosopher or a theologist is given freedom to pursue truth without the watchdogs lunging at every step asking him to explain the utility of his work, so should be a scientist, I believe.