Never mind the blue skies…

IN YESTERDAY’S Guardian, Ian Sample highlighted the threat posed to British physics if the government maintains its inexorable stance that science should be aimed at money-making enterprise, at the cost of answering the big questions about life, the universe and everything.

[UPDATE 07/10/2009: Ian  Sample reports again on 7th October describing that the Nobel prize-winning chemist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, whose animated lecturing I’ve been fortunate enough to witness, ‘has also attacked government plans to divert research from basic science into projects that are expected to have a quick financial pay-off.’ See also David Mitchell’s wonderfully acerbic commentary on the subject.]

[UPDATE 23/10/2009: The Times has run an article describing how “Hundreds of eminent scientists including Professor Richard Dawkins and six Nobel prizewinners are campaigning against plans to put an end to university research that is deemed worthless….More than 200 chemists, physists and medics say the measures will mean universities will lack the cash to fund academics to undertake the kind of “blue-sky thinking” that led to the discovery of DNA, X-rays and penicillin.

Here, I re-post a blog I wrote back in April when I learnt of the impending deficit in basic research funding highlighted in the government’s Budget document.

Basic research

[First published 24th April 2009]

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 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 will have been working on distinct, yet fundamentally important, components at that time and for decades to come; all in ignorance of each other and that 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?

We can rarely predict the great discoveries that will drive science forward; we can only nurture the major source of our past discoveries, basic research.


2 thoughts on “Never mind the blue skies…

  1. Excellent post – this is covers a chunk of what I tried to formulate within the 140 character twitter limit and, unsurprisingly, failed.

    There’s a real question in my mind as to how well UK university system is matched to the research council funding mechanism. Grants fund research in groups led by individual professors/lecturers whose research areas are pretty narrow. Grants typically fund postdocs/PhD students to do research. If you switch funding priorities then the postdoc/PhD setup can broadly take it (but only because postdoc contracts are rarely over 2 years and you provide no career path for them). At the professor/lecturer level there seems to be no matching of funding to numbers, if you switch funding from one area to another it’s very difficult to follow because, don’t forget, to get a grant you need to claim (at least fairly plausibly) that you’re world class in that (different) area.

  2. Thanks.

    I feel like a ‘failure to launch’ off the back of such restricted funds, not helped by the unnavigable bastard-son-of-a-Venn-diagram that the BBSRC has been using recently to help us decide which committee to apply to.

    When I co-wrote my first postdoc grant with my then supervisor in 2003 it was very clear that this was going to go to the biomolecular committee, and was successful.

    Three-years later and the whole field had changed, the committees had changed, systems biology and consortia were getting the lion’s share and what I thought was a damned good, and relevant, follow up grant proposal fell flat. Good marks, just no money.

    So I took a postdoc away from my interests and have spent three-years in an ostensibly ‘fashionable’, yet wholly virginal bionanotech, area and have nothing but brick-dust on my forehead to show for it.


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