Basic research…

by Jim Caryl


TODAY ‘The Scientist’ reported that the UK government is going to bail out biotech, investing £750 million ($1.1 billion) to bolster this and other ailing commercial science and technology sectors. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at what cost?

Well perhaps it comes at the cost of ‘basic research’:

Government funding for basic research, however, will receive no additional funds. Buried deep on page 130 of the new budget, the government called on the public research councils, including the MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to reallocate £106 million ($154 million) of their pre-existing budgets to support key areas with predicted economic potential — a plan which leaves some science lobby groups less than happy.

They’re going to move money around, rather than putting more into the areas of basic scientific research. In contrast, the US government’s economic stimulus package has fed money into the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), between whom most of my US scientist friends are funded in their basic scientific research.

But what do we mean by ‘basic scientific research’? The term, synonymous with fundamental or pure research, is first and foremost a quest for knowledge; it has no specific end goal or commercialisation, i.e. a practical application cannot be envisaged. We might also consider research that may yield a commercial application after 10 -50 years to be basic research too (I put my own current technologies work in this bracket). Applied research, in contrast, is work that is aimed directly at a specific commercial end, such as development of a particular drug.

So what’s the problem in the UK, why are we bothered?

We’re worried because moving money out of the ‘basic research’ sector, and into the ‘commercial’ (also known as the ‘applied science’) sector, is short-sighted. They’re aiming to make a quick buck in the short-term, but in the long-term it is basic scientific research that consistently provides (and has done for the past 200 years) the substrate, or foundation, upon which all major technological advances have been made. If all we did was applied science, then all we would be doing is coming up with a thousand refinements of the wheel, or a million permutations of some other item, without development of an alternative.

Scientists who whiled away the hours on the seeming minutiae of electric fields, or a particular protein, or some odd fungus, have been responsible for providing the bed rock of future innovation.

A nice website bolstering the importance of the ‘basic scientific research’ sector is hosted by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (part of the NIH), giving examples of advances that grew out of basic research, which include:

  • Countless drugs to treat diseases ranging from cancer to AIDS;
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which provides clear pictures of the body’s organs and tissues; and
  • The polymerase chain reaction, a laboratory technique that is the basis of “DNA fingerprinting,” which revolutionized criminal forensics.
  • Freeze-drying, which was developed to concentrate and preserve laboratory samples, is now widely used in the food industry.
  • Basic studies of digestive enzymes led to improvements including meat tenderizers; bread dough conditioners; milk coagulants for cheese production; stain-removal additives in laundry detergent; and preservatives for beer, wine, and juice.
  • Fundamental research on the role of immune factors in controlling herpes led to a vaccine for a deadly disease in chickens.

Most scientists accept that basic research it is the crucial foundation from which economic spin-offs can eventually be derived. When Jim Watson and Francis Crick were working on their structure of the DNA double helix, they couldn’t possibly have known about the economic implications of understanding this structure, which forms the basis of all molecular biological research today, as without it we wouldn’t know how DNA worked.

Without Michael Faraday’s basic research into the principles of electromagnetic induction, we would not have had the subsequent invention of radio, as there would have been nothing with which to work. I read somewhere once, and I confess I really cannot find where, of a hypothetical situation wherein Queen Victoria calls a meeting with senior ‘scientists’ from her Royal Society. She is over-joyed with the recent invention of the wireless and says something along the lines of, ‘Attend, we have recently seen the wonders of communication through the wireless. Why then can we not aim to also see the person to whom we speak? I should like you to go and find me a solution’.

They would have no chance.

Whilst some of the ground work may have existed, for TV to be even remotely possible numerous scientists-engineers would be working on distinct, yet fundamentally important, components at that time, and for decades to come; all in ignorance of each other and that what their work could one day be used to transmit live images. These fundamentals include, but are not limited to, circuit design, vacuum tubes/cathode ray tube, amplifiers, feedback and circuit stability, amplitude and frequency modulation and, of course, antennae.

In my own field, one of the most fundamental discoveries in biotechnology was recombinant DNA technology. Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer initiated a successful collaboration in the early 70’s. Cohen worked with plasmids, small circular DNAs that are often found in bacteria, but are separate from the genome of the bacteria. Plasmids contain genes that are often beneficial to the bacteria, such as antibiotic resistance, and can reproduce themselves independently of the cell in which they reside. Herbert Boyer was working on restriction enzymes, ‘molecular DNA scissors’ that can cut DNA at very specific sequences.

By bringing together their fundamental research, the pair were able to use the ‘molecular scissors’ to insert foreign DNA, encoding a gene, into one of Cohen’s plasmids. These plasmids were then able to produce the protein product of this gene in the bacteria. Thoughts of commercial applications came later, which include too many technologies to mention here (I will in future posts), but include the ability to produce hormones (such as human insulin) in vast quantities, in bacteria. Besides the invention of PCR, which itself was partially dependent upon recombinant DNA technology for its refinement, Cohen and Boyer’s fundamental research took us into a new era of biomolecular sciences.

Arguments in support of basic science are not just rhetoric in order to perpetuate academic scientists ‘hobbying’ pursuits in laboratories. Where do you think the expertise that trains future scientists (many of whom will go into the commercial sector) comes from?

No basic academic research = no research driven education = end game for UK science.