Basic research doesn't mean basic results

In 1928, Alexander Fleming observed an area on a petri dish where bacteria stopped growing—surrounded by a blob of mold—as if the mold secreted a compound that halted the growth of this bacteria. Fleming studied the properties of staphylococcus, bacteria that causes skin infections, food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome. He soon learned that the compound the mold secreted could kill many different types of harmful bacteria including streptococcus, meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. This was the discovery of penicillin. His happenstance, and this curiosity-driven basic research started the age of antibiotics.

Fleming wasn’t alone. Watson, Crick and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA with basic research. Basic research helped discover the revolutionary gene editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9. Cisplatin, a cancer drug, was identified from basic research. The MRI technique was developed through basic research.

Basic research, like Fleming’s, is defined as research with the primary purpose to increase scientific knowledge, while translational research is seen as more practical—it applies basic research insights to generating treatments for human disease. Curiosity drives science, especially basic research, and has for centuries. Yet funding sources today no longer reward simple curiosity in the lab. There is a need to get back to basic research—the building blocks of scientific progress.

The process to get scientific funding wasn’t always so competitive even just 60 years ago. There were fewer scientists, so each one got a larger piece of the budget pie. The American public and Congress didn’t see basic research as a waste of money because we still hadn’t figured out fundamental scientific processes, like how genetic traits get passed on. In the 1960s, scientific competition for money began to intensify even more so into the 1980s. Meanwhile, adding to the pressure, Senator William Proxmire introduced his Golden Fleece Awards in 1975, and awarded one each month until his retirement in 1988. He singled out projects, people and government agencies he thought wasted public money. He alienated the scientific community from the public quite successfully. For example, he gave a Golden Fleece Award to a study of the sex life of a screw-worm fly—basic research. Actually, in this  “wasteful” study researchers created sterile screw-worm flies which they  released into the wild, eliminating a major cattle parasite from the U.S. and reducing the cost of beef.

Today, the U.S. government and the American public perpetuate an ignorance-based feedback: Congress cuts funding and the public applauds them. In 2016, the U.S. government will spend over $32 billion on scientific research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical and health-related research funding agency—and although the federal research budget may seem generous, it has remained stagnant for the past dozen years. Two-thirds of the NIH budget went to basic research in the 1980s, now just over half of it does—a difference of about five billion dollars annually.

Politicians play into the decline of the American public’s support for basic research. A 2015 Pew Research Center study revealed that the percentage of Americans who view public investment in basic research as “not worth it” rose from 18 to 24 percent between 2009 and 2014. That’s not to say people and politicians oppose science per se: President Barack Obama wants to cure cancer and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wants to cure Alzheimer’s. But in order to accomplish those goals they can’t pull away from basic research. That is like proposing to build a skyscraper without any blueprints.

It’s not that basic research should be valued over other types of research; it just shouldn’t be devalued in favor of clinical or translational research. The umbrella of translational research includes testing disease treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests. All of the research efforts highlighted by The White House in President Obama’s cancer “moonshot” are translational research: funding vaccine development, immunotherapy research, and drug, device and biologics development. The goal here is clear: cure cancer. But it’s hard to see around the racetrack when we’re only focused on the finish line. Without the basic research that revealed the structure of DNA, scientists would not have been able to understand the molecular mechanism behind cancer and could never have developed any therapies for treatment. The next Watson, Crick and Franklin will not come out of translational research.

On the surface, basic research might seem like a bad investment. Biomedical research produces mountains of unpublishable data. Lack of reproducibility can overturn highly publicized and praised papers. But this low rate of reproducibility isn’t caused by the shortcomings of basic research—it’s a result of the lack of funding. The slashing of the budget caused the current hypercompetitive research environment which lead basic researchers to publish faster than ever before—scientists publish twice as many papers today than they did in 1980. Scientists need to prove their worth for funding by publishing leading to this lack of reproducibility that’s being uncovered and criticized. Instead of focusing solely on the practical merits of research, like translational research does; there should be a place for curiosity in science again. “I didn’t feel like I should be changing what I was really interested in doing just because the NIH had changed the objective,” said Dr. Dan Kirschner, a neurobiologist at Boston College whose basic research contributes to knowledge about multiple sclerosis.

Basic researchers aren’t fortune tellers. “Science itself is inherently unpredictable and that’s one of the things we love about it,” said Dr. Ferric Fang, an outspoken advocate for basic research and an immunologist from the University of Washington. “That you set out to do one thing and you come across something incredibly interesting that you never expect. That’s why scientists do what they do.”

In 2012, a bipartisan group in Congress proposed the Golden Goose Awards to combat the bad press from the Golden Fleece Awards. These new awards aim “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society.” In 2013, John Eng, a Veteran’s Affairs doctor, was awarded the first Golden Goose for his discovery that a hormone in the venom of the Gila monster, a lizard, is a highly effective treatment for diabetes. These awards are a hopeful step forward in the advocacy of basic research and how it can benefit us in the long-term, but they are just a start.

We must educate the American public and Congress about the scientific process and the merits of basic research to quell their fears about investing in the unknown. “I worry about the amount of science literacy within the public and within Congress,” said Amy Gantt, the Director of the Office of Research Development at Tufts University. Scientific advocacy should focus on bringing basic research back to the foreground and demonstrating the interplay between basic and translational research. Each can enhance the knowledge base for the other. Vaccines came before the field of immunology; this is translational research advancing basic. The process of science must also be deconstructed. It’s a process that can sometimes lead to dead ends, but can also lead to great discoveries, disease treatments and build on the understanding of the universe. Without basic research, the cures to polio, smallpox and pneumonia would not exist. And without continued investment in basic research, scientists may never unveil the cures to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.