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Basic science is far from basic

By: Lindsay Loundagin, University of Saskatchewan

Thanks to the 2004 smash hit Mean Girls, the term ‘basic’ carries a negative or less-than connotation, when in fact basic science is a cornerstone of scientific advance. It seems to get the short end of the stick and that needs to change.

Maybe more appropriately referred to as fundamental science, basic science is the study of the hows and whys, and typically born out of genuine curiosity. On the other end of the spectrum, applied science is the belle of the ball, the showstopper, the project Mom proudly displays on the fridge. So the tool belt created for NASA astronauts must be one of the projects on the fridge, right? Certainly, but you likely have this space age technology in your home- Velcro fasteners.

What is now a common and convenient technology was opportunistic innovation spawning from one man’s curiosity. In the early 1940s, George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip covered in burs and marveled at how they could possibly, and annoyingly, cling to every article of clothing. de Mestral did us all a favor and started some basic research. Studying the burs under a microscope he observed thousands of tiny hooks that efficiently bound to the small loops of fabric. An interesting but ultimately useless finding. Until it wasn’t. Fast forward two decades when a material was created to mimic this phenomenon. The hook-and-loop fasteners of Velcro were born and being used by NASA like it was going out of style. Without NASA’s stamp of approval, the world may have slept on Velcro and de Mestral’s curiosity and investigative research would have been all for not

Basic science is at the heart of life-changing innovations such as the development of pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Yet, it is the space age tool belt or wonder drug that gets attention and not the inspiring hook-and-loop discovery or novel bench-side methodology. This isn’t a call to congratulate your neighborhood basic scientist for a job well-done, but rather to recognize the importance of fundamental research in generating new knowledge and inspiring innovation. What basic scientists may really need is more funding.

Before I fall off my soap box, it should be noted that basic science is not a total underdog. Researchers from all different fields largely agree that both basic and applied science are essential and, more importantly, symbiotic. Unfortunately, the feeling isn’t always mutual with funding agencies. A recent report from Global Young Academy concluded that success rates of fundamental research at major science funding agencies in Canada dropped dramatically between 2005-2015, including a reduction of 17% from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), 14% from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and 10% from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Meanwhile, expenditure on applied research programs from these agencies more than doubled.

Increased funding for applied research at the expense of basic research would be a losing game for both facets of science, as pointed out in the UNESCO Science Report:

The current drive to steer so-called public good science (e.g. regulatory, environmental) towards business and commercial outcomes reflects a focus on short-term goals and a rapid return on investment in research that is short-sighted… The business world itself relies on the generation of new knowledge to nurture the commercial ideas of tomorrow.

The priority-driven research initiatives established by the Government of Canada are of strategic importance to the country. Although the push for applied research currently aligns with and will make progress towards these priorities, let’s not forget the underlying fundamental research that supports and often accelerates, such progress.

We need to look no further than the unprecedented success and rapid production of the COVID-19 vaccines as an example. A vaccine in a year was made possible by centuries of work in immunology and vaccinology, along with two decades of difficult, and often failed, basic research that developed methods to harness the power of our native human biology. In fact, had the pandemic ensued 5-10 years early, vaccines utilizing mRNA technology (i.e., Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) may not have been feasible as the mRNA approach to vaccines has evolved due to fundamental research over the last decade. The accelerated production of COVID-19 vaccine must also pay homage to the ongoing efforts towards eradicating SARS-CoV and MERS, potentially deadly family members of COVID-19. Knowledge from these seemingly related viruses allowed researchers to isolate COVID-19 proteins ready for experiments within days rather than years.

Funding basic scientific research is investing in an insurance policy for a better, more prepared, future. The benefits of basic research, how they shape the field, or what application they may have is not always readily apparent. With the growing attention towards scientific data and discovery throughout the pandemic, the public may have a better-than-ever appreciation for basic science and its contributions to the typically more celebrated applied science.

If we continue to make basic research unappealing, inaccessible, and unfundable we are at risk of stalling scientific advance as a whole. As Dr. George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory put it:

"If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears."

Edited by B.G. Borowiec and A.E. McDonald. Header photo from Unsplash.

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