Nov 15 2010

Investing in Basic Science

A recent editorial in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade raises some interesting points about the nature of basic science research – primarily that it’s risky. I follow science news reporting quite closely and this is a point that journalists, and the general public, do underappreciate (if they appreciate it at all).

As I have pointed out about the medical literature, researcher John Ioaniddis has explained why most published studies turn out in retrospect to be wrong. The same is true of most basic science research – and the underlying reason is the same. The world is complex, and most of our guesses about how it might work turn out to be either flat-out wrong, incomplete, or superficial. And so most of our probing and prodding of the natural world, looking for the path to the actual answer, turn out to miss the target.

In a way I liken such research to my philosophy about taking pictures – it doesn’t matter how many bad pictures you take, only how many good ones. You can always delete the bad ones, or just let them sit on your hard drive, but the good ones you can frame and display. However this is not literally true because (unlike taking digital pictures) research costs considerable resources of time, space, money, opportunity, and people-hours. There may also be some risk involved (such as to subjects in the clinical trial). Further, negative studies are actually valuable (more so than terrible pictures). They still teach us something about the world – they teach us what is not true. At the very least this narrows the field of possibilities.

But the analogy holds insofar as the goal of scientific research is to improve our understanding of the world and to provide practical applications that make our lives better. Wade writes mostly about how we fund research, and this relates to our objectives. Most of the corporate research money is interested in the latter – practical (and profitable) applications. If this is your goal, then basic science research is a bad bet. Most investments will be losers, and for most companies this will not be offset by the big payoffs of the rare winners. So many companies will allow others to do the basic science (government, universities, start up companies) then raid the winners by using their resources to buy them out, and then bring them the final steps to a marketable application. There is nothing wrong or unethical about this. It’s a good business model.

What, then, is the role of public (government) funding of research? Primarily, Wade argues (and I agree), to provide infrastructure for expensive research programs, such as building large colliders. Private companies cannot afford the big projects where there is no predictable payout. But the more the government invests in basic science and infrastructure, the more winners will emerge that private industry can then capitalize on. This is a good way to build a competitive dynamic economy.

But there is a pitfall – prematurely picking winners and losers. Wade give the example of California investing specifically into developing stem cell treatments. He argues that stem cells, while promising, do not hold a guarantee of eventual success, and perhaps there are other technologies that will work and are being neglected. The history of science and technology has clearly demonstrated that it is wickedly difficult to predict the future (and all those who try are destined to be mocked by future generations with the benefit of perfect hindsight). Prematurely committing to one technology therefore contains a high risk of wasting a great deal of limited resources, and missing other perhaps more fruitful opportunities.

As a side point, and while I agree with Wade’s core point, I feel he is a bit tough on stem cells in order to make his point. They have not provided the much-hyped cures yet, but it is too early to expect that they would have. The public’s famously short attention span, and lack of appreciation for the nature of scientific research, leads to the expectation of short term applications emerging from long term basic science programs. We have not seen applications from the genome project or stem cell research yet. We cannot yet say what, if any, those applications will be. But it is important to note that it is also too early to expect such applications. Generally speaking, about 10-20 years have to be added to the public’s expectation of when applications should emerge from basic science research (perhaps even more, in some cases). The public will forget about stem cells, and then 20 years from now real stem cell therapies (like the ones we have been promised) will emerge (maybe). The same goes for the genome project. Gene therapy? – hard to say. Maybe that will require 50 years, or some other technological developments not yet imagined.

The underlying concept is that science research is a long-term game. Many avenues of research will not pan out, and those that do will take time to inspire specific applications. The media, however, likes catchy headlines. That means when they are reporting on basic science research journalists ask themselves – why should people care? What is the application of this that the average person can relate to? This seems reasonable from a journalistic point of view, but with basic science reporting it leads to wild speculation about a distant possible future application. The public is then left with the impression that we are on the verge of curing the common cold or cancer, or developing invisibility cloaks or flying cars, or replacing organs and having household robot servants. When a few years go by and we don’t have our personal android butlers, the public then thinks that the basic science was a bust, when in fact there was never a reasonable expectation that it would lead to a specific application anytime soon. But it still may be on track for interesting applications in a decade or two.

All of this also means that the government, generally, should not be in the game of picking winners an losers – putting their thumb on the scale, as it were. Rather, they will get the most bang for the research buck if they simply invest in science infrastructure, and also fund scientists in broad areas. If they want to support cancer research, then fund cancer and basic biology research – don’t pick one possible approach as the answer and specifically fund that. Rather, the government should simply let the scientific community allocate resources according to merit. This is not a perfect process (people are people) but a panel of scientists has a better chance of determining promising research and researchers than do politicians.

The same is true of technology – don’t pick winners and losers. The much-hyped “hydrogen economy” comes to mind. Let industry and the free market sort out what will work. If you have to invest in infrastructure before a technology is mature, then at least hedge your bets and keep funding flexible. Fund “alternative fuel” as a general category, and reassess on a regular basis how funds should be allocated. But don’t get too specific.We may yet have a hydrogen economy – but who knows. There are still basic technological hurdles to overcome. Meanwhile, battery technology may turn out to be a better solution, or biofuels, or something else entirely.

Funding research but leaving the details to scientists may be optimal, but at times government seems to have a hard time letting go. The government can often be a control-freak, and when they control the purse strings they certainly have the right and ability to exert whatever level of control they wish. Hopefully, however, they will have the maturity and wisdom more often than not to content themselves with oversight, but not micromanage the research itself.

The scientific community can do their part by getting better at communicating with the media and the public. Try to avoid the temptation to overhype your own research, just because it is the most interesting thing in the world to you personally and you feel hype will help your funding. Don’t make it easy for the media to sensationalize your research – you should be the ones trying to hold back the reins. Perhaps this is too much to hope for – market forces conspire too much to promote sensationalism.

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