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More from US on basic vs. applied research

October 1, 2009

While Canadian science policy moves increasingly towards supporting applied research, our neighbours to the south are rediscovering the value of government-funded basic research. Yesterday, for instance, saw US President Barack Obama announce $5-billion in government funding for biomedical research into cancer, AIDS, and other diseases.

In making the announcement in front of scientists at the NIH, Obama underlined the importance of strong government funding of basic research: “we know that that the work you do would not get done if left solely to the private sector”. The funding includes $175-million for The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) – a project to collect and genetically characterize more than 20,000 tissue samples from a variety of cancer types. “We are about to see a quantum leap in our understanding of cancer,” NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins told the Associated Press.

The NIH divides its spending between basic and applied research, spending consistently about 56% of its $30-billion budget on basic research. An extensive and insightful article in Stanford Medicine, though, argues that the distinction between basic and applied research is a damaging dichotomy that continues to cause tension among scientists, and that the research community needs to move beyond these divisions. The tension is vividly described:

Some researchers who remember halcyon days of unfettered exploration have watched with dismay, worried about the repercussions of what they see as mere lip service to basic research. They foresee a decline in unexpected discoveries that lead to sea changes in scientific understanding — and, ultimately, advances in health care. Others… counter that it’s simply time to reap the harvest of health benefits sown during the latter part of the 20th century, when the nation poured an unprecedented amount of resources into science and engineering. Proponents of applied, or “translational,” research argue that a lack of accountability by federally funded scientists has lead to a “valley of death” — a 10- to 15-year gap between potentially useful basic research discoveries and their appearance in the clinic — filled with unlucky patients for whom the advances simply came too late.

The article suggests that the basic research horse has left the barn, and that a committed focus on translational research is necessary for the NIH to justify the immense public spending on science.

“The National Institutes of Health has a long history of supporting basic science throughout the United States,” says John Gallin, MD, director of the institute’s Clinical Center, established in 1953 to promote clinical research within the institute. “But Congress gives money to the institute with the goal of finding new cures and treatments for disease. We have ‘health’ in our name for a reason. The people who supply the money never forget that. The people who receive the money shouldn’t forget it either.”

In part, the article suggests, scientists themselves are to blame for the increased focus on applied research. Justifying basic research by pointing to the applications that will naturally grow from unexpected discoveries has led to increased expectations from the public:

“We’ve created our own Frankenstein monster in our rush to get federal funding,” says [professor of biochemistry at Stanford’s School of Medicine, Daniel Herschlag], who uses the Human Genome Project as an example. “We said, ‘Give us the money and we’ll get you the genome’ and then we made all sorts of promises about cures that would naturally follow. Certainly we’ve got some very powerful information now, but the expectations of that project overran what has been delivered — not because of an unexpected finding, but because it was oversold. So now we’re saying, ‘Give us more money, because now we need large-scale technology to make sense of all this data.’”

Ultimately, the article suggests that the old division between research types is not just damaging insofar as they cause tension between scientists competing for finite research dollars, but the distinction between “basic” and “applied” research is anachronistic. The article outlines how Nobel Prize-winner Paul Berg’s experience crosses these boundaries.

In 1968, Stanford biochemist Paul Berg decided to abandon his studies of bacteria to concentrate on newly available human cell lines. He wondered what recently discovered tumor viruses could reveal about why cells become cancerous. And he wanted to apply findings about bacterial viruses to moving genes from one animal cell to another. His longtime mentor and the Nobel-winning chair of his department, Arthur Kornberg, was less than thrilled.

“He called me the Pied Piper,” says Berg, PhD, remembering that Kornberg accused him of selling out. “In his mind, I was misleading young, impressionable students by moving away from more basic research to something more applied. But I felt this was basic research, even though it had a connection to human health. In fact, those studies uncovered features of gene structure and expression that transformed molecular biology.” In 1980, Berg, now the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, emeritus, was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work, which led directly to the development of recombinant DNA technology and the biotech industry.

Although the two scientists remained friends, they continued to disagree about the meaning of the terms “basic” and “applied” research until the end of Kornberg’s life in 2007. “To me, it’s a continuum,” says Berg. “I just don’t see the value of that distinction. But Arthur was very concerned that basic researchers were being excluded from funding in favor of applied, or translational, research”…

“I like to talk about good science, solid science, without defining it as applied or basic,” says Berg. “When I was younger, I wanted to argue, ‘Just give me the money and let me do what I want to do.’ Up to a point that’s acceptable and it’s still being done. But what piques people’s curiosity has changed and the breadth of our current understanding leads us to go up to the next level. There should be no boundaries.”

I recommend reading the full article (which is long and wide-ranging) to anyone interested in these issues, which are common to both sides of the border (thanks to @MargaretAinDC for the twitter link to the article).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    October 1, 2009 12:51

    Paul Berg is correct in many ways, if we persist in defining basic and translational research, we will fragment our efforts and cause unnecessary tension since knowledge is interdependent. “Translational” is the buzz word for the funding agencies (be it commercialization, patient-oriented or whatever) and the public is right to use it to “pull” science towards their needs. But Kornberg knew that the public is not sophisticated when it comes to science – such that basic research shrivels if not protected. The public naturally migrates towards the scientist who promises them a cure, compared to one who promises something they cannot understand the relevance of. The idea that we now know enough is so arrogant and ignorant that it needs shooting down. We know so very little and that is one reason drugs still cost billions to develop. That doesn’t mean we need to know everything before starting to convert ideas into applications. There has to be a balance that is based on intelligent policy rather than political expediency. And the research community must be more careful about how it justifies its requests for gruel.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      October 2, 2009 06:57

      Agreed, Jim. While there may well be real differences between “basic” and “applied” research, the two are interdependent and compliment and inform one another. It’s hard to imagine the public supporting basic research if no one were applying the results.

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