by Ceejay Lee
figures by Rebecca Clements

The Golden Fleece Award is an award issued by the late Senator William Proxmire during his tenure in the United States Congress. The purpose of this award is to spotlight the “biggest, most ridiculous or most ironic example of government spending or waste.” For the award in 1975, Proxmire called out psychologist Ronald Hutchinson’s federally funded research, which investigated why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws.

If judged solely by its one-line description, Hutchinson’s project might seem ridiculous, with no apparent benefits for society. However, its study of emotional behavior through quantitatively measuring behavioral manifestations of aggressions, like jaw clenching, had some unanticipated significances: it enabled NASA and the U.S. Navy to address problems pertaining to hostile behavior caused by confining humans to small spaces, such as in spacecrafts and underwater vessels, for extended periods of time.

The point is: the utility and relevance of fundamental discoveries are not always immediately salient, causing these contributions to go unsung and unnoticed. Many of the most impactful advancements of the last 20 years have long lineages that trace back to groundwork laid in basic science decades or even centuries earlier. But first—

What is basic scientific research?

Briefly, basic scientific research, also known as bench, pre-clinical, or fundamental research, is a curiosity-driven investigation; most of the time, it is motivated by a gap in knowledge about something. In (ostensible) opposition to basic research is applied research, which is centered around filling a need established prior to the start of the project (Figure 1).

As a biologist, a research project in my field that is rooted in basic science might strive to unravel the fundamentals of life, such as all of the components that comprises the immune system, which allows the body to fight off sicknesses. In contrast, a project that focuses on applied —or translational— research might try to use existing knowledge of the immune system, generated by basic research, to devise a system that fights cancer. More simply, a basic scientist wants to elucidate why component X exists within a particular system and its function, but an applied scientist might be more interested in figuring out how to use component X to achieve a certain end.

Figure 1: The difference between basic science and applied science. Basic science is motivated by a knowledge gap (e.g. the function of a component) while applied science is centered around filling a need.

Why is basic research important?

From these descriptions, applied research seems more valuable, especially since expendable resources and efforts are often limited—after all, applied research attempts to offer practical solutions to some of the most pressing dilemmas, including epidemics, food shortages, pollution, and so on.

The viewpoint that applied research is superior to basic research is prevalent—and this is unfortunate. Because most scientific research is funded by government grants, public opinion holds great sway over the allocation of funding to and in science. Therefore, when basic science is perceived to be ineffectual and frivolous, this perspective influences legislators and funding agencies to reduce funding for basic science—as such, governmental investment into basic science in the U.S. and around the globe has been steadily decreasing in recent years.

It has also become increasingly common for funding agencies to ask for the immediate commercial impact or translational potential in basic science grant applications. This pushes researchers towards more translational projects in order to receive the money necessary to fund their research. This shortening list of financially viable research topics also affects the ecosystem of scientific research by narrowing the scope of topics science can address, increasing competition and reducing collaborative efforts.

This leads me to make a critical point about basic research: while it might not offer clear-cut ways to immediately solve problems, it is the bedrock for future fixes. Breakthrough scientific discoveries are never made in a vacuum—they are built upon basic science work done by others, oftentimes decades and centuries ago (Figure 2). We simply do not understand ourselves or the world well enough to predict everything we need or might need; basic scientific research ensures we are equipped to deal with issues beyond the limits of our present-day imagination, should they arise.

Figure 2: Examples of landmark advancements that originated from basic research. Many of the key scientific advancements that have occurred throughout history would have been impossible without the basic science research that preceded them. Basic research has laid the groundwork for the invention of the laser, the World Wide Web, and countless others.

What are the contributions of basic science?

 The beauty of exploration borne of curiosity is that it is unpredictable and will bear fruits of infinite possibilities. Many of the biggest breakthroughs in our lifetimes started out as almost absurdly arbitrary questions. Without someone asking why jellyfish glow in the dark, we would not have Green Fluorescent Protein or any of its derivatives, which, among other uses, allows researchers to tag components in cells and track them under the microscope. This ability has enabled numerous scientific discovery, such as facilitating the investigation of neurological development and brain circuitry. Without someone once asking why our bodies are able to fight off sickness, we would not have cancer immunotherapy. These two discoveries were awarded Nobel prizes (Chemistry in 2008 and Physiology/Medicine in 2018, respectively). Even CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the basis of the genome editing technology that drastically changed the prospect of gene therapy for the better, would not exist if microbiologists were not curious enough to probe the functions of the bizarre arrays of repeated DNA sequences they found in bacteria.

Rather, basic and applied research are two sides of the same coin. They go hand-in-hand as symbiotic and complementary entities: without basic research, applied research has no foundation, and without applied research, basic research yields no tools.

As a biologist doing basic research, explaining my work to the public can too often morph into a game of scientific Taboo: I want to understand how, uh, this one thing interacts with another and then what happens after, which could be important because it, uh, might lead to diseases. It is not easy to “sell” basic research because basic researchers cannot—and are resoundingly discouraged from attempting to—foresee outcomes when they start a project.

Sometimes, we are unable to see tangible outcomes in our lifetimes, but this does not invalidate basic science. The value of basic science goes beyond its products: the fundamental principles it represents, critical reasoning of limited information, resilience in the face of uncertainty, and love of knowledge itself, are ultimately its most valuable contributions.

Ceejay Lee is a second-year graduate student in the Molecules, Cells and Organisms (MCO) Program at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter @clee_bio. 

Rebecca Clements is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter as @clements_becca.

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This article is part of our SITN20 series, written to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SITN by commemorating the most notable scientific advances of the last two decades. Check out our other SITN20 pieces!

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