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Basic Science: What and Why

By Anthony J. DeCostanzo 
Adapted from Original publication in Columbia Science Review, Volume 3 Issue 2. Fall 2006
“The name ‘biomedical’ to me connotes more of a basic science approach… whereas the term ‘medical’ is more neutral and less exclusive of either basic/clinical science…” So went the email response to my suggestion of a name-change for the P&S Medical Review. My colleague Peter continued, “the prime example is, of course, the NEJM, which publishes a broad spectrum of articles.”

We are trying to agree on a name inclusive of the work of both graduate and medical student contributors to our revival of the now inactive P&S Medical Review, a student publication that had been consistently published between 1993 and 2002 at Columbia University’s medical center campus. Peter (a medical student) is making the case that the term medical is more inclusive than biomedical when used to simultaneously refer to the disciplines of both clinical and basic research. His next statement, that The New England Journal of Medicine (which publishes exclusively clinical research) is an example of a journal that publishes both clinical and basic science, betrays the confusion that is the first subject of this article: Peter doesn’t know what basic science is.

Alas the purpose of this article is not to harangue my colleague Peter, but rather to draw attention to the fact that basic science as a term may not be as well understood by those outside as it is by those inside, and that this misunderstanding may contribute to the public’s lack of concern with regards to basic science funding. In the above case the divergence is between clinical versus basic, but this is likely a general confusion about basic science verses applied science.

Donald Stokes of the Brookings Institution traced the coining of the term “basic research” back to 1945 when Vannevar Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development under Franklin D. Roosevelt, stated that “basic research is performed without thought of practical ends.” (1) Bush continued that “general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws” should not be constrained by premature consideration of practical use. This is in contrast to applied research which is directed toward a particular need or use. Where the discovery of the structure of DNA is an example of a basic science discovery, a clinical drug trial is surely applied.

When public funding is running thin, both basic and applied scientists feel the pinch, but in the long-term it is likely to be the former that is most profoundly affected. The reason is simple: industry

Take the current funding situation in biomedical research in the United States as a case in point. The proportion of total pharmaceutical company research and development expenditures that has gone to phase 1-3 clinical trials has increased from 28% in 1994 to 41% in 2003, and in the same period the proportion going to phase 4 trials has increased from 5% to 11%. On the other hand, the ratio of clinical to basic funding from the NIH has remained essentially the same (2). In other words clinical research is increasingly less dependent on NIH funding since it receives an increasingly greater proportion of industrial research dollars, while basic research is still just as dependent on NIH dollars.

This may give credence to the recent outcry by basic biomedical scientists concerning the federal R&D funding conditions that have battered the NIH and other federal agencies for the last two years, and which threaten again the 2007 budget (3,4,5,6). At the time of writing, the latest appropriations draft would have leave the NIH budget flat at $28.5 billion which for the second straight year would be a net decrease when adjusted for inflation (7).

To be sure, NIH funding has fared well over the last decade, doubling between 1994 and 2003 (7). However, this leaves open to question the value of basic biomedical research, and basic science in general. Whereas many attempts have been made to quantify the return on investment from clinical research funding (8,9,10,11) it is far more involved to attempt the same for basic science since by definition (at least by the definition of Vannevar Bush) it is performed without a socially useful product in mind.

The work for which the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mellow concerned a mechanism through which C.elegans (a small roundworm) regulates gene transcription – a basic science question. This feature has since been shown to be a general mechanism that other organisms including mammals use to regulate gene transcription. Does this work provide a return for society’s investment? The discovery has also provided a tool through which researchers can silence genes at will, thereby paving the way for generations of discoveries to come. If this methodology can one day be successfully employed for gene therapy then the return on investment will be obvious, but at this moment in time we can make no such determination, other than to say that every scientist using this tool has the potential to make such a direct return on society’s investment. And so the tree of influence expands outward from a single discovery ad infinitum. Much akin to the proverbial butterfly causing a monsoon by the beating of its wings, a single discovery has incalculable influence reaching far beyond any single researcher’s imagination (or the imagination of any bureaucracy).

A full review of the value of basic science is well beyond the scope of this short commentary, and a comprehensive calculation will at best only provide a roughly estimated monetary figure. Furthermore, if this figure were attainable, it would not include intangibles such as the effect of understanding life or existence on one’s quality of life. Suffice it to say that if you are a scientist, communicating what you do and why you do it to the people around you may do as much for science as the work you do within science.

The federal government’s fiscal year 2007 began on Oct 1st, but at the time of writing the House has not taken action on the NIH appropriation, while Senate action is still pending on NIH, NSF, DOE and NASA. There is time to visit or write your Representative or Senator to have your voice heard.

1. Stokes, Donlad E. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
2. Moses III, Hamilton, Dorsey E.Ray, Matheson David H., and Samuel O. Thier. “Financial Anatomy of Biomedical Research.” JAMA 294.11(2005):1333-42.
3. Nathan, David G. and Alan N. Schechter. “NIH support for basic and clinical research: biomedical researcher angst in 2006.” JAMA.295.22(2005):2656-8.
4. Feldman Eva L. “Biomedical research: a culture in crisis?” Nat Clin Pract Neurol.1.2(2005):61.
5. Editorial, Nat Genet. 38.7(2006):729.
6. Mandel, George H., and Eliot S. Vesell. “Declines in funding of NIH R01 research grants.” Science. 313.5792 (2006):1387-8.
7. American Academy for the Advancement of Science:
8. Johnston, Claiborne S., Rootenberg, John D., Katrak, Shereen, Smith, Wade S., and Jacob S. Elkins. “Effect of a US National Institutes of Health programme of clinical trials on public health and costs.” Lancet. 367.9519 (2006):1319-27.
9. Luce, Brian R., BR, Mauskopf, Josephine, Sloan, Frank A., Ostermann, Jan, and L.Clark Paramore. “The return on investment in health care: from 1980 to 2000.” Value Health. 9.3(2006):146-56.
10. Porter, John E. “Federal Funding and Supportive policies for Research.” JAMA. 294.11(2005):1385-9
11. Cutler, David M., Rosen, Allison B., and Sandeep Vijan. “The value of medical spending in the United States, 1960-2000.” N Engl J Med. 355.9(2006):920-7.