I was chatting with a scientist cousin of mine and the one vexation we had about the state of research these days was the lack of investment in basic science research. After spending some time complaining, I felt it would be interesting to write about basic science research, how it is different from applied research and explain why it is so important. I should stress that the opinions expressed here are purely my own.
At this point, I think it would be instructive to briefly describe the premise of scientific research. There are a lot of unknown things about the natural world. Obviously, this raises a lot of questions. Scientists come up with hypotheses about the potential answers to these questions and design experiments to test these hypotheses. The answers usually raise more questions and research goes on, allowing scientists like me to hold jobs and buy way too many books at Blackwells.
What is basic science research anyway?
Basic or fundamental science is a study of the world around us to understand how it works. It can be a study of cells (cell biology), microorganisms (microbiology) or molecules (molecular biology). Irrespective of the subject matter, scientists do basic research to increase human knowledge. To illustrate my point, I was looking for some intellectual quotes about basic science and I came across this real humdinger by the organic chemist Homer Burton Adkins: “Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, painting a target.” Sounds esoteric, right? What Dr. Adkins means is that basic science is a lot like looking for something unknown and once it is accidentally- on- purpose found, focussing all further research on that one entity.
How is that different from applied research?
As the name suggests, applied research is an application of the knowledge acquired by basic research to solve problems faced by specific groups of people. Penicillin is a classic example of this. Alexander Fleming was a Scottish scientist and physician who accidentally stumbled upon penicillin, much like Dr. Adkins’s analogy. He was a brilliant, but messy scientist who left an uncovered petri dish of Gram-positive bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus on the window sill of his lab and went on a month-long holiday. When he returned, he found that his plates were contaminated with mould. Interestingly, he found that the bacteria closest to the mould were dying, as evidenced by a clearing up of bacterial colonies. He isolated the mould and found that it was a member of the Penicillium genus of fungi. Further investigation found that this mould was effective in killing other Gram-positive bacteria responsible for deadly diseases like meningitis and diphtheria. He also realised that the mould was killing the bacteria via a ‘juice’ it secreted. He named this ‘mould juice’ penicillin. While this was very exciting, it did not have much use if it could not be used in patients. This is where, nearly 12 years after the initial discovery, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were able to purify the compound penicillin in large enough quantities to treat sick soldiers during World War II. The initial discovery of penicillin and its potential applications are an example of basic research. Its subsequent purification and deployment to the frontlines in WWII are examples of applied research.
Why do I think basic science is so important?
It is obvious that without basic research, modern technology and medicine that significantly improve the lives of people would not exist. Unfortunately, the current research landscape does not appear to value purely basic science research. Most often grants that ask for basic science funding have to be packaged as applied research grants and even then, scientists might not get the money they’ve asked for.
Without the initial observation that a plant pathogen was small enough to pass through a filter that was designed to trap bacteria, scientists would not have discovered viruses. Without further basic research into the biology of viruses, scientists would not have figured out how viruses infect and propagate in hosts. It is only by applying this knowledge about the structure and behaviour of viruses, that scientists have been able to develop drugs and vaccines to combat them. Without an initial investment in basic research and development, we would not have the internet, smartphones or GPS. We would not have drugs that treat cancer without basic research to understand the underlying mechanisms of why cells become cancerous and how they spread like wildfire. I can name so many more examples, but then this post would become unreadable.
It is obvious that increasing human knowledge through basic research is beneficial to improving the health, quality of life and security of human beings. Why then is there a reluctance to fund and support such research? Naturally, in times of adversity, it is human nature to invest time and resources into finding an immediate solution. However, we will rapidly run out of innovative solutions without understanding the underlying problem further. Consider investment into basic research as setting up a retirement plan. We should save up and invest long- term for a brighter and more secure future.