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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

This Research Is worse Than Bad-It's Basic

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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

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

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