Monday, April 2, 2012

Basic science rocks!

The economical crisis is affecting everything. We are all familiar with "budget cuts", "restrinctions", "debt", "risk premium",... In most high income countries the new mantra are "make things profitable", "tax-payers money should be used only to support areas with added value", "let´s avoid unnecessary things", ... Not surprisingly this politicians view is also affecting science. Five to seven years ago many grant funding agencies, including the European Comission, started to deem basic science as a low priority area. Instead, major funding efforts are increasingly been devoted to those projects/areas showing great promises of transfer the knowledge to the market in a short time. In many places, at least in my own country Spain, basic science is mostly considered a waste of money. Now in every project you write you really need to make a clear business case of the importance of your research, and expected results, for health, society, market,...In the context of biomedical research, my own area of research, projects should be truly oriented to impact significantly the National Health System (NHS).

Is it really true that we, basic scientists, are wasting tax-payers money? Is there not anymore space in our society for curiosity driven research funded by the goverments?

Under my view, the answer is simple. Goverments should just fund top-class science. Perhaps the scheme to be followed is that of the European Research Council (ERC), the flagship granting agency of the European Comission. "The ERC's mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-initiated frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of scientific excellence." We need to understand mechanisms of disease to design treatments and therapies and this is what basic science does. High quality basic science really pays off being a perfect example the new cancer therapies. Interestingly enough the ERC council also states: "...the ERC expects that its grants will help to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries - the kind that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future". 

Nevertheless, there is a mass of excelent academic science not translated into innovative tools/therapies. In the field of Biomedicine, we know a lot about mechansims of disease at the cellular and molecular level but this knowledge is mostly useles in terms of impact on the NHS. The fact that it does not yet happen widely enough may simply be that the academic sector is rarely ready to seize the challenge of translational research to a point of visibility and credibility that would interest the pharmaceutical/vaccine companies. I do believe that for us, scientists funded by tax-payers, translational research is an ethical obligation. However, a lack of communication between the academic and industrial worlds is certainly an issue. The bridge between discoveries and market should be closed but this is not the scientists job. The process requires the concerted efforts of different stakeholders including the public sector. Perhaps this is one of our greatest challenges ahead.

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