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A plea for basic biology

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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These days, science funding is like a cage fight—utterly brutal.

It’s even harder to compete for funding when you work on microscopic nematode worms that live at the bottom of the ocean.

As an undergraduate at King’s College London, I watched with great sadness as the university abolished departments—first chemistry, then biological sciences. At the time, the university blamed these closures on lackluster research portfolios and low interest from prospective students. I graduated in the penultimate biology class, as the university was shifting its focus towards its stronger, more highly rated biomedical programs.

Yet, at the time, I noticed great irony in my situation. As we heard more tales of our "underperforming" biology department, our lecturers were instead preaching about transformative discoveries fueled by basic biological research.

In parasitology we learned that Artemisinins, some of the most potent and effective anti-malaria drugs, were originally discovered in an unremarkable pan-Eurasian herb, Artemisia annua (annual wormwood).

The overarching message of invertebrate zoology? Marine sponges are practically a gold mine. The mere mention of this phylum elicits Pavlovian salivation from pharmaceutical companies—in addition to malaria, sponge chemicals are leading the fight against tumors, cancer, bacteria, inflammation, and arthritis. Even sponge skeletons have been tested as ‘bioscaffolds’ to help heal bone and cartilage injuries.

Some of the most revolutionary discoveries have origins in basic research—someone looking at an exotic, unusual plant (or even an overlooked, mundane plant), or studying species’ weird adaptations to extreme environments like hot springs or the deep sea.

To harness nature’s potential, humans need to know what’s there. And what’s there, for nematodes, is a big fat question mark. Nematodes may not offer us the cure for cancer, but they certainly have a story to tell.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, our ecological ignorance and shocking lack of baseline information was certainly a wake up call. If only we knew what was there before, we could determine what damage has been done.

As a scientist, I have a natural curiosity and thirst for the minutiae, but I also realize the value of selling the big picture. In the Gulf of Mexico, assessing oil damage is now the biggest picture. In the U.S., the legal process of Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) is conducted by the government in the wake of environmental disasters—NRDA only covers damage to ecosystem services that affect humans: ecological, cultural, or historical impacts; commercial or recreational impacts; and passive value such as the preservation of wild spaces.

There are plenty of arguments: the NRDA process isn’t fair, it is too cut and dry, it ignores the sacred chi of Mother Earth. But most NRDA officials I’ve spoken to are deeply passionate about science and lament the dearth of basic information needed for comprehensive damage assessments They’re bound within a stringent legal framework—just like in court, companies like BP are innocent until there is definitive evidence of guilt. In the absence of published baseline studies, the default assumption is that no damage has occurred.

Out of context, you could argue that spending taxpayers’ money on deep-sea worms is foolish and wasteful. But when you think about what happened in the Gulf of Mexico and consider what could be gained from understanding the earth’s biodiversity, there really is no argument.

Funding slow, steady basic research may not always be considered "sexy science," but it may save lives. Literally.

Photo credit: Nematode images by Dr. James Baldwin, Manuel Mundo and Tiago Pereira from the University of California Riverside.

About the Author: Dr. Holly Bik is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Despite working in a genetics lab, she is marine biologist at heart—although occasionally she must convey enthusiasm for C. elegans in order to appease colleagues. Her current research uses high-throughput DNA sequencing to study marine meiofauna (microscopic animals such as nematode worms, protists and fungi) with a specific focus on the deep sea. Holly contributes to Deep-Sea News and is still trying to get the hang of Twitter @Dr_Bik.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. robert.whitrow 11:41 am 02/11/2011

    Similar comment could be made in relation to basic Physics or Chemistry. In the UK we have spent much energy in developing ‘subjects’ that contribute little that satisfies intellectual curiosity or to the natiional wealth. We educate many in what can only be viewed as undemanding subjects that will lead to jobs in the public sector requiring tax payer support. Until we re-engineer the schools and stop some of the material that later produces a burden on society we will never regain the wealth or the intellectual respect we once had.

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  2. 2. sbscienceny 2:38 pm 02/11/2011

    Very true. As another example, restriction enzymes were discovered by people who studied phage biology. These enzymes are now the workhorses of molecular biology. Despite a long history of evidence that science progresses by unexpected discoveries in often obscure basic science fields, agency bureaucrats want quickly translatable scientific discoveries. Science is unpredictable but funding agencies don’t understand it and don’t have the vision to fund risky science. They want predictable results and that leads only to incremental changes.

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  3. 3. Wendypedia 4:45 pm 02/11/2011

    Great article – though it’s not such a sad thing to abolish the concept of departmental science. Great basic science discoveries are made when different disciplines intersect.

    Interesting, though, how pharmas have been so quick to ditch basic science concepts that don’t translate immediately into something clinically useful (i.e., marketable). For example, so many companies have recently pulled the plug on RNAi-based pharmaceuticals…

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  4. 4. GAry 7 3:42 pm 02/14/2011

    So I guess what bureaucrats want are engineers to build salable products?

    That’s fine, as long as SOMEONE is doing the basic research that leads to those news capabilities. Most basic research is free and available to anyone who wishes to profit by it, since most such is publicly funded. Perhaps for the basic research, we should charge anyone who can build products from it,,,forever,,,

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  5. 5. lauriewiegler 9:43 pm 02/14/2011

    Holly, I was delighted to find your post tonight though concerned about the subject matter.
    Ironically, I can comment from two perspectives: as a science writer who recently spoke at a conference at UGA on how media covered the oil spill and as someone who’s been admitted to grad school at King’s College London.
    I completely agree that "basic biology" is not only what the Gulf needs right now, but what should be driving the research. I have written over 200 stories on the oil spill from differing perspectives, and it was only when I got to people such as Dr. Samantha Joye, Dr. Chuck Fisher and Oceana’s lead scientist Mike Hirschfield that I actually felt I was getting answers. One of the chief ideas that came from the conference was the disconnect between journalists’ deadlines ("have it to me by 4 today, Wiegler!") and the scientist’s ("it will be ready when it’s ready and not before.")
    We’d all do well to one, respect the science necessary in helping better understand major environmental disasters and two, give scientists the time they need to come up with the answers to help all of us. Maybe this makes me less than an in-your-face journalist, but I don’t care.
    Sorry about the program cuts, to which I cannot speak. I’ll be in a different department.

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