Basic research shines light on parts of science we didn't even know we should be looking at.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Basic research shines light on parts of science we didn’t even know we should be looking at. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The budget proposal by the Obama administration is a mixed bag in terms of funding for science. Targeted research received some OK gains but basic research was left with the same or even less money than the previous year. If this trend continues, it won’t just be basic research that takes a hit. It’ll be your health and the U.S. economy too.

I know, I know, a scientist bemoaning a cut in funding — talk about someone with a vested interest! But hear me out.

In some ways this funding proposal is understandable. We have a dwindling pot of money and we want to fund what will be most likely to pay off. The problem is that this approach keeps science from finding completely new things that will lead to new approaches to treating diseases, identifying new energy sources and so on. We won’t make any dramatic leaps in knowledge that fundamentally change how we address our problems.

Funding predominantly targeted research is like looking for your car keys only in lighted areas of the street. You are missing a whole lot places where the keys could be. Science is similar. Basic research is like adding new light posts—it opens up areas of research we didn’t even know we could explore.

I have a listed a few such findings off the top of my head. Because I’m more of a molecular biologist/geneticist, I’ve focused on these topics. There are undoubtedly lots of other examples from this and other areas that I haven’t included. Please feel free to add more to the comments section if you’d like.

Cell cycle regulators. Cancer happens when a cell grows out of control and/or refuses to die. Our cells have all sorts of controls in place to keep cells growing and dividing when they should and to also stop growing and even to die when they should too. The key regulators in this process were originally found in the humble baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. We found them more easily in yeast because of the unique properties of this model system (easily manipulated genetics, fast growing, etc.). Because of that initial basic research, we were able to study this aspect of cancer and begin to identify treatments based on these regulators much sooner than we otherwise would have.

Micro RNAs. Until the early 1990’s, RNA was mostly thought of as a passive molecule. Basically the instructions found in genes in DNA were copied into RNA. This mRNA was then translated into proteins using two other RNAs, tRNA and rRNA, and it was proteins that did all the heavy lifting in the cell.

Through the work done in a small, see-through worm called C. elegans, we discovered that tiny RNAs are actually important in controlling how much protein gets made from a gene. These microRNAs are used in people too and have been shown to be involved in a number of cancers. Not only that, but they are incredibly useful tools for exploring how genes work so we can find new targets to go after for cancer research. It would have taken a very long time to find them with targeted research and even longer to figure out they were significant and how they work without basic research. I am not sure we would have found out what they are and/or do for decades if we had just focused on people.

Without the basic research on enzymes that cut bacterial DNA at certain places and the research on little bits of self-replicating DNA called plasmids, we’d still be getting our insulin from pigs and cadavers.
Without the basic research on enzymes that cut bacterial DNA at certain places and the research on little bits of self-replicating DNA called plasmids, we’d still be getting our insulin from pigs and cadavers.

Genetic Engineering: What started out as some basic research on bacteria in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, turned into today’s genetic engineering. People who become anemic from cancer treatments can thank basic science for their EPO and people with diabetes can do the same for their insulin. Both are now grown in bacteria using the genetic engineering tools created from basic research.

And the list can go on and on. The human genome project has opened up so many avenues of research that we are still figuring out where to go with it all. The same is true for the basic research that identified stem cells, the structure of DNA, recombination and on and on.

If we had just focused on targeted research, we would have missed most of this or at least research would have been delayed by years or even decades. Sick people would have suffered longer because we didn’t fund basic research.

Of course I understand the quandary we are in here. If we have to choose between research on duck penises and food stamps for poor families, food stamps would undoubtedly win. This is even if the duck research might help us understand and possible even better treat conditions like preeclampsia, a problem with high blood pressure that can happen with pregnancy.

But we do need to think about how we can get the most bang for our limited science research dollars. Can we free up some money by streamlining how scientists are funded? Should we change how we assess whether scientific research has been successful or not? Should we divvy up the money in different ways with an increased percentage going to basic research?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but the folks in Washington need to start thinking about this. I don’t think we want to give up our strong science position in the world just yet.

More on applied vs. basic research

Importance of basic research

Fund Basic Research, It’s For Your Own Good 1 May,2013Dr. Barry Starr
  • Michelle Goody

    I have personal experience with basic science research informing applied research strategies. My research area is basic, developmental biology. I inhibited an enzyme “X” and observed what a lack of the end product of this reaction “Y” did to developing muscle in zebrafish. The zebrafish had a muscular dystrophy-like phenotype! Now we know, in zebrafish at least, that “Y” is not only important for muscles to develop normally, but that you can give zebrafish modeling muscular dystrophy extra “Y” and reduce the severity of their disease. Now, “Y” can be looked into as a therapy for human muscle diseases. “Y” may not have been discovered as a potential treatment for muscle diseases if it had not been for basic research on the role of “Y” in the development of muscle!

    • Barry

      That is a good one. My favorite zebrafish one isn’t really a health issue…I think it is so cool that they used the golden zebrafish to find one of the key genes that makes Europeans more pale than Africans.

  • i agree that we must fund basic research. i have been following an accidental discovery since it was made back in 1985; scientists investigating one eyed ski jumpers found out how to display real 3 D TV *without* any glasses, adapters, or post processing. While this clever and unique process has still never been used commercially, i am sure there are many more examples of how basic science have lead to new innovations.

  • John Fiorentino

    Obviously most of the problems with Science funding relates to the poor economy.

    Any way we slice it, there will have to be some pain. The overriding questions are: “who’s pain” and “how much.”

    The pros and cons and arguments can go on ad infinitum.

    While funding for good Science must be continued, yearly increases in spending must also be contained.

    In 2013, the COLA or Cost of Living Allowance for Social Security recipients increased a mere 1.7%.

    I think it fair to ask exactly where does the government get its numbers? FACT: Since 2008 when Obama took office, food prices have risen a whopping 54%! and the price of a gallon of gas has more than doubled!

    So, when some scientists complain about funding percentage increases, they should be happy they are not depending on the governments formula as applied to Social Security.

    However, a greater increase in funding for basic research as opposed to applied research would seem in order.

    Overall costs can certainly be reduced by streamlining procedures for funding requests. Some scientists spend as much as 40% of their time writing grant proposals!

    We have some hard choices to make. While we can’t ignore the needs of the poor for instance, we can’t conduct good science without proper funding.

    Studies have shown conclusively that underfunding results in more “false-positives” in scientific research.

    A good article to read is entitled; “The folly of science on a shoestring”……from which comes this quote:

    Newton famously wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We need to make sure that science continues to stand on solid foundations, not a house of cards.

    • Barry

      Thanks John, you anticipated my next blog…how scientists get funded.

      The social security comparison is a good one but I want to add a twist. Right now, everyone who is eligible gets their social security (as it should be). So even though their numbers increase, they all get their money even if it is less than it maybe should be. So the overall social security budget increases based on the number of eligible people.

      For scientists, what has happened is that their budget has not kept up with the increase in the number of scientists. What is happening because of this is that more and more scientists are chasing the same number or even slightly fewer grants. This means lots of scientists get no funding or spend, as you said, way too much of their time trying to get funding. It is as if the funding for social security increased but not enough to cover everyone!

      Now obviously not all grants should get funded (I’m sure a lot of them are not very good) but the percentage is so low now that it is discouraging people from entering science. I suppose that is one way to correct the funding problem as long as we are OK with fewer scientists.

      • John Fiorentino

        Well, we can kick this back and forth I suppose.

        I mentioned Social Security merely to demonstrate that we are ALL at the mercy of the government. Of course you are well aware, also, that unlike scientists, those on SS made a financial contribution as well.

        Do we need more scientists? I’m not really sure.

        I know years ago, much research by scientists was self-financed. Perhaps a look outside the confines of government is in order. Of course then, we might have the issue of bias, which we surely don’t want.

        So, these are difficult questions as you say and we’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later.



Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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