Basics

We have science for a lot of reasons.  To cure disease, build a better missile, improve the resolution on my television, design a better iPhone, keep the lights on, curtail the obesity epidemic, and so on.  I could group most of these reasons into a simple overarching theme: to improve quality of life.  Of course, one could make the argument that “build a better missile” doesn’t fall under that category, depending on who you’re planning to target with that missile.  But, I’m not here to parse the ethics of war.

I’m here to parse the reasons behind the research I and others do as scientists.

We have problems in this world.  Problems that need solutions: cancer to be cured or treated, crops that must survive drought, injuries to treat.  For those problems, our society (and our government institutions) fund scientists to solve those problems: study the cancer and find a treatment or cure, find ways to help crops survive drought, look for novel approaches to treat certain injuries.  I call these approaches directed research.  Government or private foundations award funding to scientists and their teams (funding to pay for supplies, facilities, salaries, health insurance, subsidized bus passes, retirement, etc.) to study a specific problem or phenomenon with a set of directed goals.

Directed research is fantastic, and absolutely essential to the health of our economy and our society.  In many cases, once we’ve accumulated sufficient scientific knowledge about a phenomenon, it’s relatively straightforward for a government funding agency, non-profit foundation, or privately-owned company set up a direct research goal.  Take a simple example: solar flares.  “Okay, we know a lot about solar flares.  Now let’s figure out how to build a satellite that can still operate during severe solar flares.  Go to it, people.”  This is the logic behind directed research: trying to solve practical or pressing problems.

There is another realm of scientific research, one that is less directed in goals, methods, and execution.  I call this type of research basic research.  Basic scientific research is difficult to define, but here’s my best attempt.  If you ask a scientist, “Why are you studying [name of phenomenon]?”, you’ll know it is basic research if the simple and most straightforward answer can be summed up with a single word: “Because…”  Not a very satisfying answer, and admittedly few scientists would probably respond with a single word.  They might instead wax on about, “Well, [name of phenomenon] is really important to study, since it could help us understand [a problem to which the phenomenon is only marginally related] and then be able to [solve, treat, alleviate the marginally-related problem].”  In other words, they might try to masquerade their basic research as directed research.

Confession time: I’ve done this time and again.  I was first exposed to this masquerade technique as an undergraduate, the very first time I worked in a research lab.  No one pulled me aside and whispered, “Now I’m going to teach you how to make people think your basic research is really directed research.”  I just began to notice this behavior among my more experienced peers (graduate students, researchers, professors).  It was subtle, but pervasive, seeping into their papers, grant applications, presentations, and interactions with the general public.  I, and many of my fellow students, simply absorbed these examples as “This is how we do it.”  To get funding for your research, you have to tell the public why it will directly solve a problem or quandry facing our society.

Is it lying?  No.  All directed research is based first and foremost on basic research, whether it is the basic research of yesteryear or yesterday.  You can’t cure cancer, for example, until you first know how cells work.  I was once an intern in a laboratory that studied how bacteria cells make new cell walls when they grow and divide.  Part of the justification for funding this type of research is that it may help open up new avenues for treating bacterial infections.  After all, if you can interrupt cell wall synthesis in some pathogenic microbes, you can help the patient’s own immune system gain the upper hand.  But during that summer, I wasn’t directly researching new types of drugs that could be used to stop growth and division of pathogenic bacteria.  I was exploring the basics: the simple biological truths and facts underlying this phenomenon (the growth and division of tiny bacterial cells).  It was basic research, pure and simple.

Thus, is it misleading to masquerade basic research as directed research?  I’d argue that it is, if you end the story with “I was an intern studying bacterial cell wall synthesis so we can come up with new treatments for bacterial infections.”  That’s not why I pursued this internship, and I seriously doubt that’s why the members of that laboratory studied bacteria.  They studied this particular biological phenomenon because they find it interesting, fascinating, intriguing.  How bacteria grow and divide is good question about our natural world that needs answering.  Just because.

We’re built for basic research.  After all, we’re an inquisitive species.  We ask questions, often in a directed manner, but sometimes in a very open-ended manner.  Why is the sky blue and the grass green?  Why do we have two eyes instead of four?  Why is the Earth round instead of triangular?  It’s an insatiable curiosity that we must balance with the practical needs of this world.  We can’t spend all day wondering, dreaming, and exploring.  We have children to raise, dishes to wash, bills to pay, meals to prepare, and so forth.  And the practical needs of our existence demand practical answers to our practical questions.  How can I reduce my risks for getting cancer?  What’s the best type of bottle for my baby?  How can we reduce smog levels in my city?

These questions are endless.  Answering one practical question usually spawns dozens of others.  But, we cannot answer all of our questions using simple, directed research.  It is not as simple as:

PROBLEM + RESEARCHING PROBLEM = ANSWER

Sir Alexander Fleming.
“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But, I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

That false scenario oversimplifies our complex world.  Not every problem has straightforward answer, and sometimes we find things before we even realized we were looking for them.  Antibiotics, for example, were discovered by accident.  Sir Alexander Fleming certainly wasn’t looking for a substance from mold that could kill bacteria.  No one had given him funding to do this, because few people could probably even conceive if it.  Sir Fleming simply noticed that the bacteria he studied had died due to a pesky fungal contaminant: the mold Penicillium.  There’s a similar story for physicist Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity.  When chemist Leo Baekeland inadvertently made the first plastic material, he was actually trying to synthesize a synthetic shellac insulator for electrical devices.  The list of prominent accidental, inadvertent, or out-of-the-blue paradigm-shifting discoveries goes on and on.  In short, there is great potential for discoveries that could solve some of our pressing problems, but we cannot make all of these discoveries simply using the resources of directed research.  We would lose the creative edge, knowledge accumulation, and random unlooked-for discoveries of basic research.  I’m not advocating an end to cancer research funding, or that we stop investing time and resources into developing alternative energy sources to break our fossil fuel addiction.  But, we must also fund basic research to realize the full potential of our scientific ingenuity and reap the full benefits of our innate curiosity.

Unfortunately, in the United States, it has been in vogue for my entire lifetime to curtail and slash funding for basic scientific research.  It’s easy to understand why: two generations of American voters demanded government services, but lacked the political will to pay for them.  Deficits swelled and budgets burst.  Now we are at a critical period, where structurally unsustainable debt has called for severe retrenchment of government services in many sectors of our society.  One prominent victim over the past few decades has been government funding for basic scientific research.

From this scientist’s perspective, there are several justifications regularly used to advocate the slow death of basic research.  Some say we just can’t afford the expense in our current fiscal and political crisis.  The axe must fall somewhere, after all.  Other attack basic research because we live in an age where scientific literacy has become a part of our culture wars.  Thus, it is easy for some to use science as a weapon to promote political agendas.  But, many today also deride basic research because it isn’t directed research.  They demand direct returns on the investment of funds for scientific research.  But since there’s no direct, simple measure for the value of basic research, directed research often receives valuable funds instead.

This approach is unsustainable.  Directed research is built on the foundation of basic research.  Remove the foundation, remove the creativity, and remove the random and unimagined discoveries of basic research, and everything unravels.  There’s no electricity without the collective efforts of a lot of really nerdy 19th century basic physics researchers.  No antibiotics without Sir Alexander Fleming’s keen insight toward his own sloppy laboratory skills.  No pacemaker.  No X-Ray imaging for medical diagnoses.  Picture your life without Velcro, Teflon, or your microwave oven.  No plastics, and most definitely no Moon landings or missions to the other planets in our solar system.  The Voyager spacecraft would not be on the verge of being the first man-made objects to enter interstellar space, and there would be no Hubble Space Telescope.  The phrase “Big Bang” would be a cheap sexual pun, and Albert Einstein would likely have lived out his years as a patent clerk.

As offensive as that dystopia would be to me, I rarely hear it mentioned when elected officials and voters deride the cost of basic research.  The absence of this type of dialogue between scientists and the general public reinforces the idea that the scientific community has simply failed in its duty to communicate with the general public on all fronts when it comes to the value of basic research.  Scientists have surrendered the high ground, letting critics set the terms of the debate or distort arguments to suit individual agendas.  Researchers are often left on the defensive, and elected officials have leave to slash funding for basic research with impunity.

But, it is not too late to reverse this trend.  Scientists must go on the offensive, fight distortion and falsehood, and communicate honestly with the public about the true value of basic research.  This honesty will be difficult for the public to absorb, especially since they will be hearing that “Just because” can occasionally be a perfectly acceptable answer to justify an avenue of scientific investigation.

Scientists do not do basic research for directly measurable results.  We do it because we do not know what’s over the horizon, and we won’t know until we look over that horizon.  We have to embrace that reality — that reason — and wear it as a badge of honor if we ever expect to convince the general public of its value.  We must also emphasize that we are not asking for a blank check from the taxpayers: scientists must propose reasonable avenues of investigation to receive funding, and justify continued funds with a steady stream of new findings published in peer-reviewed journals.  These rigorous standards are a simple continuation of the types of basic research that have been conducted for generations.

We do not know the full value of these avenues of basic research because we do not know where the next great discovery will lie.  It could be on Mars, viewed through a telescope to another galaxy, far beneath the ground, or in a test tube on a laboratory bench.

We can’t afford not to look.  Curiosity, after all, is in our nature.

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About James Urton

I went to school to become a molecular biologist.  At some point in this long education, I discovered that I love communicating science to the general public: talks, writing, at a pub, on the street corner...  Whatever venue will let me hold your attention for a few moments.  Unfortunately, I can't do this for a living, since no one will pay me.  So, I have a job as a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, where I get to work with great scientists on some really awesome projects, and I'll blog about science here at Muller's Ratchet in my spare time. Why should the general public want to know anything about science? Here's my explanation (which also explains why I chose the name Muller's Ratchet for this site). Briefly as a graduate student (before I had to devote all of my time to graduating), I blogged at Adaptive Radiation.
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