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This Research Is Worse Than Bad–It’s Basic

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


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It’s not every day that you turn away the opportunity to promote a scientific finding that was published in Nature. Usually, an email notification from the prestigious journal sends communications departments such as mine into hyperdrive: press releases, media calls – this stuff is gold. And yet, this particular paper simply wasn’t newsworthy, not even for section C page 17 in the bottom corner.

It’s not that the research was bad; it was basic. And the sad fact is that nobody (outside of science) cares about basic research.

As I see it, we have more than one problem here. The first is a perceived disconnect between basic and applied research, in which the two are viewed and treated as separate entities. The second relates to a failure to communicate research in a way that helps people understand its value.

Here’s an example: The Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario is comprised of 58 natural lakes and a research station that has been operating since 1968 and whose budget was axed by the Canadian federal government in 2012, despite the fact that the facility had a stellar international reputation for delivering important, basic research findings. Public outcry against the closure led to a commitment from the Ontario provincial government to keep the facility open until a deal can be made this year to transfer the support to another entity. But its future is by no means certain.

Like many people (including, I’m guessing, the majority of Canadians), I knew nothing about the ELA until its funding was cancelled, when an outcry suddenly raised the public profile of this quiet little research facility. While there was a great deal of conjecture about underlying reasons for the closure of this facility, the official line from the Canadian government was budget cuts.

This problem isn’t entirely new, nor is it a particularly Canadian phenomenon. While there are parts of the globe that have managed to keep science funding relatively steady, a number of nations (i.e. U.S., Australia, Canada, Italy) have cut science budgets to some degree. Scientists may not like it, but it’s the reality of the current economic climate, where austerity trumps inquiry – with Spain as the most dramatic example of this.

Applied research built the iron lung. Basic science made it obsolete.

Applied research built the iron lung. Basic science made it obsolete.

The issue, as many have pointed out, is that many of the cuts to science funding have been at the expense of basic research. It’s a snake that has a rather long tail, the end of which can be traced back a decade or more, with the establishment of research grants and networks focused on translational work. During this time, and particularly in the last 5-7 years, we’ve seen a shift in the public scientific lexicon, in which words like discovery, understanding, theory, learning and inquiry have been replaced by others, such as innovation, job-creation, commercialization, and applied. The rise of more translational or applied research is not a bad thing: without it there exists an equally unbalanced scenario – or “science for science’s sake” that has also dominated publicly-funded research in the past. Neither end of the pendulum’s swing is particularly beneficial for society. But while the aforementioned snake was a relatively benign (possibly a beneficial) creature initially, it grew teeth and those teeth are currently very deeply embedded in basic research.

For the record, I work for a government-funded research network that was created 12 years ago with mandate to bridge the gap between basic and clinical studies: in other words, to fund translational research. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few conversations with researchers about translational versus basic research. Some have found it hard to adapt to a new reality that requires applied outputs and all have had to come to terms with shrinking budgets to do their basic work.

The question I’ve often asked them, in very simple terms, is what difference does it make if their funding is for basic or applied research?

The answer is that you can’t have applied research without basic research.

Consider that the Internet was once a basic research pursuit, built on packet switching methodology and queuing theory. Modern sanitation practices are based on germ theory as studied by Pasteur and others. And an example my network’s Scientific Director, Michael Rudnicki, gave me: “Applied research would have developed the best iron lung imaginable, but it was basic research that led to the discovery of the Polio vaccine and made the iron lung obsolete.”

Without basic research, there would be no innovation. If we stop funding basic research, how long before we lose the ability to innovate? Where will we go then?

For now, let’s go back to the Experimental Lakes Area. In the aftermath of the ELA’s initial demise, amid the shock, anger and blame levied at the government, one of the more salient points made was that the government’s decision could be related to an inability of researchers at the facility to communicate the value of their work, something that should have been front and centre on the facility’s website and communications (it is now readily available and digestible on the Save ELA website, the coalition assembled to advocate on behalf the facility).

I point this out not as a criticism of the ELA or the people who worked there, but to highlight the second problem I identified. I think, in all the focus on slashed budgets, the importance of communications has largely been overlooked. In today’s funding culture, if you want to obtain/retain funds you need to be out in front of it, in a big way. You need to demonstrate impact at every opportunity, not merely as a reaction after the funding dries up.

Which brings me back to that Nature paper. A share of the blame rests with me. Part of my job is to translate science into something the public finds interesting and if I had pushed a bit harder, I could have come up with the right way to tell the story. Maybe not for the front page, but at least for section C.

Scientists also need to tell their story, and I don’t mean in the abstract or at a science conference or in the next grant application. They need to tell it the public. Yes, I am well aware of the many pressures faced by scientists, but maintain that in today’s reality of shrinking science budgets, they can’t afford not to communicate. Because even if the public doesn’t care about the intricacies of research, they do care about where money is being spent and they’re willing to get behind it if they understand why it’s important.

Photo: Marquette University

Related:

Behind the Greatest Experiments: Basic Research
There Should Be Grandeur: Basic Science in the Shadow of the Sequester
Scientists in Serbia Protest against Dire Financial Situation

Lisa Willemse About the Author: Lisa Willemse is a science communicator working for the Stem Cell Network in Ottawa, Canada. She is the co-editor of Signals Blog, which she founded in 2009 to share insights on stem cell and regenerative medicine research, mainly through the eyes of early career researchers seeking to gain skills in science writing. Lisa is also interested in policy, art and the great, gob-smacking outdoors. Follow on Twitter @WillemseLA.

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






Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. Heteromeles 10:31 am 07/24/2013

    So, it sounds like, trying to understand this, is that you want to be out of a job, because you want the scientists to do the work rather than you. I agree that scientists’ heads generally get very far from consensus reality, and that it often takes real work to make anyone care about what they’re seeing. They’ve only got so many hours in each day, and it seems like you want them to stop their basic (incomprehensible, boring, or whatever) work to make the thankless trek back to the herd, so that you can quickly copy what they do and not add anything to the endeavor.

    I apologize if this is a harshly critical view, but it helps to realize that, sometimes, scientists are pretty freaking clueless about why enough people don’t care too. Talk to any conservationist or global warming expert, or for that matter, any mycologist. The small secret is that most people don’t care about important stuff no matter how many times they’ve heard it. It’s not just a trivial problem of correcting their ignorance, it’s the biggest problem most people face. They don’t particularly care about their health, they don’t care about things like how fire-resistant their house is if they live out West, and they don’t care about how climate change may drown their favorite beaches.

    Helping scientists translate their knowledge and passion to things everyone needs to know isn’t just a nice gesture, it’s totally necessary. If you don’t want to help them, that’s fine, but don’t pile the blame on the scientists.

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  2. 2. jdjentsch 10:33 am 07/24/2013

    If the goal of the author was to encourage scientists to communicate more freely about their work, starting off with the strong message that “Nobody … cares about basic research” was an odd strategy. One of the simple facts of the matter is that scientists are often reluctant to communicate about their work because we hear messages of discouragement (like this message) or because we lack the resources and support needed to craft a message that would be of interest to the broader public.

    There is no doubt that conveying the significance and importance of basic research is a greater challenge than is, say, describing a recent discovery in disease treatment. All this means is that those who are skilled in communications should work a little harder to communicate this message.

    Alternatively, one wonders why – when a major translational research discovery is made – our media relations officers don’t take the opportunity to point out one or two crucial basic research discoveries that made that possible. Again, this is perhaps a challenging thing to do, but to be accurate and effective, communications about science should be challenging to create and convey.

    I believe strongly that it is crucial for scientists to communicate openly, transparently and often with the public, through the media or any other outlet they can. But I also believe it is incumbent upon our institutions to work with us to encourage active engagement and communication and to provide us with the needed skills.

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  3. 3. bjnicholls 11:25 am 07/24/2013

    I suppose the example of being turned down by “Nature” fits the notion that every scientist should seek maximum visibility. But that’s flat-out impossible, and contrary to making the real science accessible. Only a tiny fraction of papers will be published in high-profile journals. It’s unfair to suggest that poor communications skills are all that it takes to make an uncharismatic study stand out enough to be run in science’s glamor publications. Communications skills are important, but all scientists and science writers should be assist in spreading the message that basic research is valuable and essential.

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  4. 4. bjnicholls 11:27 am 07/24/2013

    Strike “poor” in the above.

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  5. 5. sjfone 12:02 pm 07/24/2013

    Madison avenue.

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  6. 6. Page J 12:28 pm 07/24/2013

    I wonder if most basic scientists understand the importance of conveying their research to the public.

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  7. 7. WRQ9 2:43 pm 07/24/2013

    This same scenario is dominating all fields of endeavor, I call it the age of the salesman. There has always been a population of fundamentally clueless individuals who are presently (and perhaps always will be) unaware of the entirety of foundational research that supports many of the more visible achievements. We previously protected these people, as we did artists, based on an inherent sense of respect. meaningless “science for science’s sake” was laughed out of the arena. Individuals were (in those days) trusted to self police the more fringe aspects of the campus with a sort of unyielding critical eye.
    In the 60′s and 70′s arguments from the Arts began to take hold in college administrations all over and these practices lost favor. Not because of a lot of good arguments against them, but because of a few weak but well publicized (in music and pop culture) themes that scared of a lot of good scientists. In a way the whole thing seemed “tit for tat” with the same kind of backlash as in many “do unto others” style reprisals, but the power came from outside the discipline, so there was a lack of sensitivity about the whole thing. A reassessing took place in which fundamental values were stripped down to the survivable from the perspective of the institution.
    It is the ability to police the interrelations of priorities and circumstances through simple reason that was lost. I once wondered as a boy, who would steal a “medal of honor”? It seemed so pointless to me to try to claim by symbol that which could only be bestowed. Little did I know that that argument (in the early 70′s) would become the essence of the bane of my existence. This is a “no win” sort of an argument to get into. You cannot gain but the humblest of victories, the right to witness, record, and acknowledge the truth. On the other hand, if your argument waivers, or if some craft is overlooked, or some power unmatched, everything that makes a thing a thing lies vulnerable. You rationally lose the right to exist as an entity. This is the milieu of science at it’s core, and the milieu of all true scientists. Any fact, or failure of rigor, misrepresented becomes a bastion for argument capable of draining the entire resource of the endeavor, while the restriction of the inquest in any way stands as the foremost of these. Incompetent science begs for corruption like a sinner pleads for mercy in hell. Each man of science bears part of this relationship. Meanwhile the satisfaction of that plea weakens the structure and the value of the whole. As the value is depleted, corruption redefines the institution.

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  8. 8. WRQ9 2:57 pm 07/24/2013

    In the second paragraph “of” should be off. I.E. “scared off a lot of good scientists”. Public humiliation is an indefensible tool of the popular front. This was an attack on the actual foundation of society by the same clueless faction mentioned earlier. I need to stress here that this was a calculated attack, though not a fully cognitive one, later supported by several official decisions.

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