Find your next Nobel Prize-winning applied science tool here [en.wikipedia.org].

Find your next Nobel Prize-winning applied science tool here [en.wikipedia.org].

If your car won’t start, hopefully your mechanic knows enough about cars to ask the right questions: Is the battery dead? Is the ignition switch working? If your mechanic doesn’t understand how cars normally work or doesn’t have the right tools, good luck getting your car fixed when it’s broken.

Scientific progress works in a similar way: it relies on basic research to provide both the understanding and the tools that we need to eventually fix problems. For example, synthesizing DNA used to be really laborious. But basic research on Yellowstone hot spring microbes, which have DNA-synthesizing proteins with unique abilities, led to the development of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a tool that allows biologists to easily synthesize lots of DNA. PCR is currently used in medical diagnoses, crime investigations, and molecular biology (we can also thank PCR for every paternity-testing episode of Maury Povich). Because of basic research, we knew enough about DNA synthesis, proteins, and the stuff floating around in Yellowstone to develop a tool with tangible benefits to society.

The goal of basic research is to build a body of scientific knowledge. This knowledge can then be used by applied research, where the goal is to solve specific problems. Knowledge first, then problem-solving.

However, a draft bill proposed by Congressman Lamar Smith earlier this year has some scientists concerned that funding will be siphoned away from basic research. The High Quality Research Act (HQRA) is designed to ensure that the National Science Foundation—a major funder of basic research in the US—funds only projects aimed at solving problems “that are of the utmost importance to society at large”. Similar policy changes in Canada threaten to divert funds from basic research there as well.

Basic researchers in the US are already being hit hard by the sequestration’s $1.6 billion budget cut to another major funding source, the National Institutes of Health. The HQRA would likely pull even more funding from basic research and funnel it into applied research. This is a problem since applied research relies heavily on basic research. It’s like trying to solve a complex calculus problem without first learning how to count.

That’s why this is the perfect time for scientists to re-establish a dialogue with the public and policymakers about how scientific progress works, and explain why we should continue investing in a diverse set of basic research projects.

Historically, many of our greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from basic research with no obvious applications or direct commercial value. This is true across disciplines, but as a biologist, I’d like to mention a few examples that I’ve come across in my work. Just like PCR, while the basic research at their foundation may have seemed esoteric at the time, the ensuing discoveries have given us a dramatically improved understanding of how biology works, as well as tools with immense potential:

  • RNA interference (RNAi) allows researchers to selectively de-activate genes, which has proven to be a powerful tool for both basic and applied research. First noticed in plants, and further studied in worms, it has practical applications in agriculture and possibly medicine. Importantly, RNAi showed scientists that the control of gene activity is even more complex than we knew, uncovering a huge knowledge gap that we are currently trying to fill.
  • A glowing protein called “green fluorescent protein” revolutionized molecular biology and allowed researchers to tackle lots of previously inconceivable things, like figuring out how the brain is wired. Its discoverer found it while studying jellyfish.
  • Promising new ways to easily “edit” genes are being developed, which would be very useful for many basic and applied research projects and could have therapeutic possibilities in the distant future. These techniques evolved from basic research on bacterial immune systems.

In addition, applied research that seems like a sure bet sometimes isn’t. For example, only one in 50 potential new drugs gets the OK to move into clinical trials, and only 1/5 of those are approved by the FDA. So 99.6% of drugs that look like good candidates don’t end up being clinically useful.

Without basic research, we might be missing the context we need to make better predictions about what would make a good drug, what side effects a drug might cause, and even figure out how to generate potential new drugs or treatments.

To solve problems “that are of the utmost importance to society at large,” we need to continue investing in basic research. Science can’t fix things without understanding them first.

 

Katherine Rogers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University.