Why basic research matters, for example

This post was previously posted on Gotham Skeptic in the first weeks of the blog’s existence. The topic has been on my mind since the announcement last week of Craig Venter’s amazing achievement.

A common mold yielded the most important antibiotic of the last century.

A common mold yielded the most important antibiotic of the last century.

This is probably the single most important issue to me as a scientist and as a citizen. Coming up with a straightforward answer to why basic research is important is difficult every time I am asked to do so, and depends on who is doing the asking. When writing to a granting agency, it is crucial to outline why my particular aspect of research needs to be pursued more rigorously, and with that granting agency’s money. When it is asked by an acquaintance on the street, I have to first assess the asker’s understanding of how science is done in order to respond.

Many people whose last formal relationship with science was in high school or introductory courses in college do not understand that science roughly falls into two categories, basic and applied. Applied science is the stuff, we as consumers, are most familiar with. Applied science brings us medical, technological, and agricultural advances. So if I say I study how hormones, like testosterone and estrogen, influence behavior, most people can relate; one might think of the changes in mood associated with the menstrual cycle, or the anger and aggression associated with recreational steroid usage in sports (I am not pointing fingers in either of these examples!). But when I say I study how hormones influence the bizarre behavior of some species of animal they have barely heard of, then we get into more ambiguous territory. I do basic research. I study stuff that is not likely to have a direct application to humans in the sense that it will not “heal me,” “feed me,” or “give me new gadgets.”  Basic research of this sort is constantly under fire to prove its worth in a world faced with unpredictable climate change, energy shortage, and omnipresent health concerns. With all of these critical problems plaguing humanity, why waste time studying the minutiae of the natural world?

… because the experimentation necessary to understand physiology is often (usually) not feasible to do with human subjects.

because curiosity about the natural world is an inherently human pursuit.

… because the natural world is constantly surprising us and you never know when fungi will become penicillin.

… because in order to determine if something (a drug, a treatment, a diet, climate change) is having an effect, you have to know what happens normally as a baseline (for instance, if you want to determine if climate change is having a negative effect on polar bear survival, then you need to have an understanding of the variety of factors that influence populations of bears living the arctic).

… because basic research leads to applied research. Period. Although humans have known for millennia that the removal of the testes, or castration, prevents males from reproducing and alters their behavior, it wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that most hormones were described by science. This was through work done on rats, mice, cows, chickens, dogs, rabbits… we are talking basic research here folks. It was an incredibly short amount of time between isolation of insulin from cows and the first clinical use of insulin in 1922.  And not long after was the emergence of “the Pill” in 1960, which was the first oral hormonal contraception available to women.  Every scientist can outline a myriad of paths in which basic research in their field led to something useful for humanity. Sometimes the paths are immediate and direct, and sometimes the paths are long and winding.

But I like to be asked on the street why I do the science that I do. Forming my answer helps to remind me, the myopic scientist with my head buried in my research, as well as remind me, the tax-paying citizen of the one of the largest funding agencies in the world, the United States government, that understanding the natural world has inherent value.

Of course this list is not exhaustive. Other suggestions on why basic research matters?

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