Career: Senior Consultant | Wipro IP & Legal | Beijing, China
Basic Research: To Fund or Not To Fund?
Having a conversation with the person sitting right next to you on an airplane can be discouraging. It usually starts out with the question: “Where are you from?” After hearing that I have been in the United States for less than three years, I usually receive a kind compliment for speaking fluent English. Right after that, there usually is the awkward moment where I have to explain that Taiwan is not Thailand and Tibet is not part of Taiwan.
However, what is even more discouraging is the second question: “So what do you do?” I often try to summarize my answer in few sentences in the hope of avoiding or at least not causing more confusion: “I am a graduate student in molecular cell biology. I study bacterial cell division.” My collection of reactions to date ranges from “Bacterial cell division?” “What’s the point of studying that?” to “Why not cancer research or something?” to the puzzling look of just “Hmm.” Having a conversation with the person sitting next to you on an airplane can be thought-provoking. It makes you wonder where exactly you are from and whether there is actually a point to what you plan to do for a career.
Even though the person sitting next to me on an airplane may not represent the majority of Americans and may not necessarily be “politically correct,” the “why-fund-basic-research” attitude seems to be shared by the U.S. general public and government. As pointed out by William Brody in the Financial Times, “the West has lost the will to fund basic research,” particularly the United States. As a matter of fact, the National Science Foundation used to favor basic research without regard to potential application. However, it was directed by an Act of Congress in 1969 to favor applied research, and the trend towards greater funding of such proposals has continued to date.
A huge portion of the National Institutes of Health’s $28 billion budget in 2007 was aimed at treatments and therapies for specific diseases rather than at basic research in cell and molecular biology. While countries like Israel, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland are pouring more and more of their funding onto basic research, the United States has been cutting back. John Marburger, science adviser to President George W. Bush, asked the question that has been lingering in my mind: “Is the United States spending enough on basic research?”
Among the arguments against funding basic research, what I find most intriguing is that applied research is more “valuable” than basic research, whether in economic terms or other value systems. It is difficult to see why research has suddenly had to start defending and justifying itself on the basis of its potential applications. The value and essence of research, as the name indicates, lies within itself: re-search, search after a previous search. For those who cannot appreciate the inherent beauty of basic research, something to bear in mind is that it provides the foundation for application. As the National Science Foundation director Dr. Arden Bement puts it, “often the connection between an area of research, or even a particular scientific discovery, and an innovation may be far from obvious.”
When Albert Einstein figured out the theory of relativity, he had no idea that it would eventually bear fruit in the form of the global positioning system. Likewise, basic research in nuclear magnetic resonance led to medical diagnosis, and the discovery of Penicillium mold led to totally unanticipated applications in antibiotics. In other words, it is only through basic research that we reap the benefits of applications that may arise from it. It is not only short-sighted but almost foolish not to fund an area of basic research just because its potential applications are far from obvious.
For those who have sit next to me on an airplane, yes there is a point in funding and doing basic research even though it may not cure cancer or AIDS tomorrow. For those who are still clinging to arguments about the economic relevance of applied research, allow me to go back to William Brody’s point that we run the risk of slipping into economic irrelevance if we think that the knowledge we possess today will punch our ticket to the world economy of the future. Basic research should not be sacrificed for applied research. To fund or not to fund, that should not be the question. Basic research needs to continue to occupy a top position in our funding priorities.
An-Chun Chien is the Lee Foundation Fellow in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and a PhD Candidate in the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences, Washington University in St Louis. She received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in Biochemistry from National University of Singapore in 2004.