NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Friday, October 12, 2012

COMMENT: In Search of "Basic Science" (Includes DCAAR: "Funding Science") [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This week my laboratory had what is called a "site visit" in usual academic terms.  In general, a Site Visit (or SV) means that one or more representatives of a scientific agency (typically a funding agency, but it can also be other types of scientific review) come to your "Site" to see your research, environment, and talk to the key personnel on the project.  There are also "Reverse SVs" when the agency has all of the reviewers in one place and the "Visitee" has to take their whole team to go put on the "Dog and Pony Show" are a different Site.

I have been involved in many of these SVs, and they typically cause you to drop everything for 1-2 weeks to prepare, then rehearse everything to make it look like you know what you are doing!  SVs serve another valuable purpose, though, the reviewers get to see your environment, hear from your administrators, get a feel for how the lab works - and those being reviewed get a first-hand chance to meet the reviewers and get a better idea what they are looking for.

The topic of this blog, however, is less about the SV itself, but about the purpose behind the SV.  You see, the funding agency didn't want to fund research directed at drug discovery, finding a cure for a disease, or creating a device.  They wanted to fund "Basic Science."

What, you may ask, is "Basic Science?"  [Go ahead, I'm waiting.  Feel free to ask.]

Why, thank you for asking!  Basic Science is just that - it's basic - the science that forms the basis of other discoveries.  In an age where we may argue about *who* should fund scientific research (, whether certain research is "appropriate" (, and even the ethics of scientific peer review (, the notion of doing science just for the sake of discovery is endangered - Congressmen and animal rights activists claim that it is repetitive and useless, while society and industry are often not interested in anything that does not result in a product.

When I entered academic science, there were two main divisions that received the most attention - "Basic" and "Applied."  For a memory researcher, Basic Science would be to study a brain area and report any discoveries regarding mechanisms of encoding, recall, patterns, structures - and even negative results. ("We tried this and it didn't work, therefore we can rule out...") Basic science is about exploration, building on discoveries, and hypothesis testing.  Since a well-formulated hypothesis can only be negated, and not affirmed, this means a lot of "We tried this" papers. 

Applied science was anything directed to a product - a drug for Alzheimer's Disease or a neural Prosthetic, for example.  A lot of Applied research started out with Basic Science, and only after essential principles were proven, did the application suggest itself.  In modern biomedical research there is a new term "translational" which encapsulates this latter thought - fundamental science that is still directed at a medicinal goal - a "translation" of Basic Science in Applied Science.

As stated above, Basic Science research is endangered in this country and around the world.  It is endangered by the economy, decreased government funding of science in light of increased government spending on everything else, increased regulatory and compliance burden, animal rights activism, and the unrelenting push to *prove* something and justify our science.  The National Science Foundation funds some Basic Science research (around 10% of total science research, depending on the field), but so much of their budget is consumed with national science education and public science infrastructure (such as museums).  The National Institutes of Health are much more focused on the "Translational" buzzword, and so swamped with applications, that funding only 7% of applications translates to only 2% Basic Science support - even though they fund around 50% of the research in biomedical fields.  Private industry funding (anywhere from 40-60% - again, depending on the field) must answer to the corporate bottom line and goals - such as drug discovery - and even there they are increasingly focused more on finding new uses for old drugs than finding new drugs. 

That leaves charitable foundations, and private university funding.

Reality check:  Most universities are struggling.  They don't have deep research pockets filled by tuition.  Professors with primary appointments to *teach* only get about 30% of their time to do research as it is. Anything more relies of getting grants from sources outside the institution.

Oh, but there's another player - The U.S. Department of Defense funds 25% or more of the research in certain defense-related or soldier-related fields (such as PTSD and Neural Prosthetics).  However, it is more accurate to describe them more as a "corporate" funding agency due to the focused "Applied" nature of the research.
So, that really leaves only charitable foundations.  Fortunately, they do exist, but nationwide, they come in a distant fifth place to NIH, NSF, DoD and Industry funding.  Still, some of the foundations are quite large and challenge the National Institutes in amount of funding - especially large charities such as American Heart Association, Muscular Dystrophy Association, etc. but again, those are again better described as "industry" due to their singular focus on Applied or Translational research. 

Philanthropic foundations, such as Gates, Keck, Templeton, Dana and many others are the last bastion of Basic Science... and there's only so many billionaires to go around.

Basic Science is in danger.  Despite protestations to the contrary, there is still so much we don't know in science...
...and we'll never find the answers if we close those doors.

1 comment:

  1. So, what do the Applied sciences do when they've hit the end of the knowledge created by Basic scientific research?

    Yes, definitely something for all voters to keep in mind, and mention to their Congress critters. Not that there's much sign that they listen . . .


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