Self Expression Magazine

On the Defense of Pure Science

Posted on the 08 October 2015 by Jhouser123 @jhouser123

If I ever get around to writing a book in my lifetime, it will be on this topic: we still need pure science.  We as human beings need to keep asking “why?” and “what is that?” just as badly as we need to ask “how can this help me?”  

It seems like everything we do today is viewed in terms of profits.  When an artist creates a work of art or a composer scores a new piece of music, the immediate question asked by producers and managers and agents is “how much money can we make from this?” When something new is invented, the creators are usually required to seek large investors or crowdfunders who commonly  ask what sort of profit will be made off this invention.  Now more than ever we are creating or discovering merely out of a defined market value or needs analysis rather than for its own sake, and science is no exception to this rule.

The golden era of scientific discovery seems almost romantic.  Science had staved off most of its challengers and was beginning to assert itself as a source of reason in the natural world.  Great thinkers and discoverers were fiddling and tinkering and wandering and journaling and asking fantastically complex questions about the nature of the world in which we live.  This was a time when the very foundation of knowledge we build on today was laid down.  Ideas like “all living things are made of cells” or “tiny atoms make up everything on earth” were unconventional but were coming to be accepted as universal truths.  This is also when naturalists were cataloging the earth’s many species and discovering fascinating features of our planet and its ecosystems.

Occasionally out of all this discovery came an profound moment when a scientist or physician realized that something they had discovered could help someone.  The first antibiotics, or the accidental discovery of the concept of vaccination, for example, were applied to human health with astounding results, changing the course of human history so significantly that we couldn’t imagine life without them.  In the mid-1800s small shops began popping up, creating a variety of compounds that would help cure ailments, giving rise to the first pharmaceutical companies (which are now among the largest multi-national companies in the world). Merck, a global corporation worth over $100 billion today started as a family-owned pharmacy in Germany selling elixirs and making compounds behind the counter.

The pattern of discovery in academia leading to applications in health and medicine continued for some time before the modern pharmaceutical companies started growing extremely quickly (as a result of changing prescription practices in clinics and hospitals).  Instead of just capitalizing on the research of academic scientists, companies eventually started employing their own chemists and physicians to start researching new drugs. Pretty soon the number of new drugs coming from studies conducted by private industry skyrocketed, while those coming from academia continued its steady rise.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we have a biotechnology industry that is booming, a pharmaceutical industry that is bigger than you could possibly imagine (with more political power in the United States and the world than you probably want to think about), and a culture of scientific discovery that has fundamentally changed.  To illustrate this point, I want to use some data from the NSF and the NIH.

For those of you unfamiliar with these two granting organizations, the NSF typically funds basic scientific discovery (what I call pure science, or “knowledge for the sake of knowledge”) and the NIH funds translational research (or research that can be applied to humans and human health in some way).  They regularly publish statistics about their spending, including how much they allocate for research grants.  On average over the last 10 years, the NSF has spent just over $6.45 billion per year, funding around 21,000 projects.  For the same time span, the NIH has spent around $20.7 billion per year, funding roughly 45,000 projects.

What is very interesting is when you look at the time since the financial collapse of 2008.  From 2009 to 2014, NSF grant spending has dropped by 21%, while NIH funding hasn’t really moved (actually growing by about 1%).  The number of grants awarded by the NSF also fell by 24%, with NIH projects only falling by 7%.  What does this mean?  It could mean that NIH spending is seen as more crucial, valuable and necessary, and is preserved despite economic turmoil in this country, while NSF spending fluctuates with available funding and is more easily cut.  This could suggest that all things being equal, research that can be applied to us in some way is more likely to be given grant dollars.  Obviously this is a very general analysis of these trends, but if you would like to review the data, you can find the NSF’s information here and the NIH’s here.

So why is basic science so important anyway?  The argument against basic science usually suggests that if something doesn’t directly benefit us somehow, then it isn’t worth throwing billions of dollars at it.  Others would argue that a large portion of the research funded by the NSF becomes translational in the future, so it really isn’t all pure science anyway.  What is the point of doing something if it is just going to fill the pages of journals and be stacked on the shelves of university labs, keeping undergraduates busy trying to learn it all?

I want to consider one case where basic science transformed human thought: Charles Darwin. His now famous story starts out with the second voyage of the HMS Beagle, where he served as a naturalist, collecting and cataloging specimens throughout South American and Oceania.  The truth is that he really didn’t know much about zoology, so when he returned from the voyage he enlisted the assistance of a large number of scientists who identified the specimens he brought back.  The finches he collected were identified by the ornithologist John Gould to be distinct but somehow quite similar species, and from that, along with evidence from tortoise shells and fossils, he determined that the geographical distribution of these species seemed to suggest that they had a common ancestry, which he mapped in the form of a tree.  This would, over time, lead him to publish On the Origin of Species, which has largely withstood the scrutiny over the years as the most accurate account of species diversity and the basis for evolutionary biology.

This is just one example of where pure science led to a massive discovery, bringing about a paradigm shift in the human understanding of life on earth.  Is Darwin’s discovery intended to somehow apply to human health and well-being?  Not really.  Does its discovery directly lead to the cure or prevention of a disease or disorder? Not in particular.  What his discovery did do, however, was shape the thinking of every biologist to come after him.  It fundamentally altered how we think about adaptation, and gave us a framework to explain the similarities that organisms have to those outside their species.  Certainly some researcher has applied what they learned in their college genetics and evolution classes to make a scientific discovery that has helped millions of people.

It is easy to discount the importance of pure science if you allow yourself to become shortsighted or focus too closely on one specific outcome of scientific inquiry.  Recent years have seen the focusing of the world’s scientific resources squarely on human outcomes: save lives, cure people, prevent disease.  We need to remember where science started, and why we do science in the first place.  Gaining knowledge should always remain our primary focus, with the human outcome a close second.  I am not saying the work of the NIH isn’t needed, and I am not saying that we should focus solely on pure science, but I am afraid that if current trends continue there will be zero support for pure discovery anymore.  If that happens, I really don’t know that the future of science will be a bright one.

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