The promised injection of £2 billion into the UK science ecosystem is without doubt a good thing. However, there is some uncertainty as to how it will be handed out.
Since this is taxpayers’ money, there needs to be a demonstration that the money has been “well spent”: the big question, then, is what defines well-spent science funding? In the event of the government not opting for the “give it all to John Tregoning” option, I wanted to make a case for the funding of basic science.
Translation versus inspiration
While all science involves repeated testing of ideas, we artificially split the world of scientific effort into two very broad areas: basic science (pure research, learning about stuff for the sake of learning); and translational science (testing things like drugs, chemicals, devices, bridges and computers to improve the quality of human existence).
To those with a commercial mindset, the translational approach has the greater value. You put money in, you get better stuff out. So why invest in pure research?
Essentially, basic science underpins translational research: the ideas about how to make stuff better come out of pure research. Lots of modern engineering depends on us understanding how gravity works, but Newton’s aim wasn’t to put rockets on the moon. While the results are not immediately tangible, basic science underpins technologies that are the foundations of billion-dollar industries – for example cancer immunotherapy, lasers, the internet, GPS, fluorescent and luminescent proteins.
I strongly believe that we need both: funding translational science at the expense of basic science may pay off in the short term, but it damages advances in the long term.
The home of basic research
I also believe that in the current research ecosystem, universities are best placed to deliver the pure research and companies small and large are best placed to develop it into real things.
Companies utilise (and often contribute to) the basic research being performed by academia, but rarely initiate basic research programmes by themselves: though there are exceptions, the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory (which has gained two Nobels) has just celebrated its 60th year and the AT&T Bell labs earned 8 Nobel prizes.
If universities are initiating the research, it raises a question about who financially benefits from the basic research, as the money may not seem to come directly back to the originator. But it will trickle back in tax revenue, employment, better medicines, cleaner cars and other indirect benefits.
This is a strength of bringing Innovate UK and RCUK (Research Councils UK) into one umbrella organisation, enabling the flow from academic basic science to small and medium enterprise led innovation (ie, by any firm with up to 250 employees) to large company implementation.
The other benefit of basic research is the teaching and training element.
The economy needs people with science backgrounds. A PhD provides the student with very much more than just the ability to move colourless liquids around – it gives them problem-solving, teamwork and analytical skills, tenacity, flexibility and independence. But just as no one expects doctors to train without ever seeing a patient, the best way to learn science is by doing science.
Basic research delivers this apprenticeship in science. To quote the National Science Foundation in the US: “Basic science is a gamble because it deals with the unknown, but a sure thing because it always leads to improvements in knowledge.”
Reap what you sow
The good news is that the public have repeatedly demonstrated support for basic science: a 2014 survey by the British Science Association reported that 8 out of 10 people questioned supported research with no immediate benefit. So please include basic research in the mix – not to the exclusion of work with an immediate pay-off, but as part of a long term strategy to further develop our scientific excellence.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: we choose to do the research we do, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; we choose to do basic science because it is there and new hopes for knowledge are there and we are going to climb these mountains.
Surely that is as uplifting a message as we can hope to end 2016 on.
This article was first published on the Times Higher Education Supplement 31/12/16