Support for basic science research is faltering. The decrease in basic research funding is particularly alarming because the overall National Institutes of Health budget has decreased by 20 percent since 2003 (when adjusted for inflation). Despite the many successes of scientists in solving medical problems, science is under attack. There is real value to studying fundamental molecular processes without an explicit impact on disease prevention.
There is a way forward. A strong commitment to basic research should be followed by commitment to people and their ideas, not just specific projects. A successful model is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds its investigators in five-year increments. The contrast with federal funding agencies is tangible. Douglas Melton, an HHMI investigator at Harvard, was studying developmental biology in frogs — certainly not immediately applicable to human disease. Yet when his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease resulting in pancreatic beta cell death, he rapidly shifted his lab to stem cells. His work with stem cells was informed by his previous focus on developmental biology. The transformation of his lab was possible because HHMI funding is unrestricted. In 2014, Melton published a landmark paper describing the production of functional insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells. A company, Semma Therapeutics, has already been created to bring this discovery to patients. HHMI’s funding model of long-term and open-ended support of scientists, allowed Melton to explore and experiment. Twenty-five HHMI investigators have won Nobel prizes, and their model shows that providing scientists with stability leads to profound success.
In addition to medical applications, Melton’s story also has policy implications; it highlights the need to reform how research funding is allocated.
The backbone of the U.S. medical research community is the NIH. The NIH divides its $30 billion budget between research projects, education, medical centers and academic training. It seeks to gain fundamental knowledge about biology and apply that knowledge to improving health. With this goal in mind, the NIH funds both “basic” research like Melton’s and “applied” projects to bring those discoveries to patients. Despite this reality, the percentage of the NIH budget spent on basic research has decreased by 6.7 percent since 2002. This has translated into the cutting of almost 2,000 basic research projects and over $3 billion in funding. Where is the money going?
For one, there is more money for applied research — projects with a direct medical impact using patient samples rather than model organisms like mice, yeast or bacteria. Basic science researchers ask: how does a process work and how might its dysfunction cause disease? Applied projects ask: how, or if, a drug works or how a specific protein is modified in patients with a disease. As important as these projects are, they often only add data to the existing knowledge base, not an understanding of fundamental biological mechanisms that apply to many diseases.
Championing an increase in basic research funding will not be easy. Funding agencies like the NIH are under fire. Lamar Smith, Chair of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology has described federally funded research as “frivolous and wasteful.” Smith’s pessimism towards science is toxic for progress. Improving the human condition and funding projects that lead to medically applicable discoveries requires trust between funding agencies, the public and scientists. Basic science projects by nature almost always do not return immediate results. It often requires the testing of several incorrect hypotheses until the right one is reached. This is not failure because others will not perform the same experiment. This is progress.
Improving the expectations around basic research can start with using precise language and realistic time frames. Cancer is an illustrative example. The idea of finding “the cure” for cancer is not uncommon. It is important to remember each type of cancer affects a different tissue or cell type and thus is driven by dysfunction of different genes and proteins. Therefore, one “silver bullet” cure does not exist, and acknowledging this, and the huge amount of work to be done, sets up a more realistic discourse for the pace of progress. We need both basic and applied research to discover cures and bring them to patients. For applied research to flourish, its foundation, basic science, must be supported at least as robustly.
Steven Lewis is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .