9th December 2013

Exploring the Future of Energy

From NWD12: Future of human biology? Fundamental science

There was a strong focus on the continued need for fundamental science during this afternoon’s session, Human Biology: The Great Deal We Don’t Know and How to Discover It.

The worry about reduced funding for fundamental research was evident during each speakers input to the conversation on the future of research on human biology. Taking this a step further, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard said that “we need to know more about general biology”.

The moderator, Bruce Alberts, said that much of the funding for biochemical research is by people who have had these diseases e.g. cancer survivors. This has an adverse impact according to the Editor-in-Chief of Science. He often hears people say: “Why should the public tax money pay for scientists satisfying their curiosity?”

Craig Mello added that those very naive curiosities often result in huge discoveries. He mentioned being in awe of the fact that the genetic code is similar across organisms and finding out that the insulin gene can be read by bacteria. I interviewed him earlier this week and he spoke about this: read here.

“Curiosity is a basic must for scientists” said Nüsslein-Volhard. She recommended that if you’re not curious, don’t do science. Here’s a great formula she gave for good research:

Curisosity + Good Problem + Bit of Smartness = Good Basis for Research

Mello said that the reduction can be blamed on the limited resources we now have. Given the choice between funding research that might get into clinics next year or a long-term project that could revolutionize medicine, review panels are choosing the applied clinic-focused research. He said that funding in the United States is flat despite the increased need to understand the new knowledge available. “This is really unacceptable and it really threatens our ability to do the basic science for the next 10 years”.

Asked how we can change this, Steven Chu said that leaders have to be convinced that you have to make investments into the future. This is happening in the United States according to Chu who used the saying “you don’t eat your seed corn”. Mello added that we need to do a better job at communicating with policy makers and scientists must keep track of the impact of their research.

This is yet another conference where this debate is a hot topic. Every Nobel Laureate and prominent scientist that I have heard speak about this thinks there is a problem with fundamental science funding. However, policy makers in many countries think we need more applied science. Perhaps this is a take home message for policy makers!

Maria Delaney tweets @mhdelaney.



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