Don’t give up on scientific research so quickly


Henry I Miller, Today Online

Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Given limited resources, the grant-making authorities are always tempted to channel a higher proportion of funds towards the latter.

And, faced with today’s tight budget constraints, the inclination to favour projects that have demonstrable short-term returns is arguably stronger now than in the past. But to succumb to it is a mistake. Some of science’s most useful breakthroughs have come as a result of sustained investment in basic research or as by-products of unrelated efforts.

Indeed, evaluating the impact of any research project is difficult. As Dr Marc Kirschner, a professor at Harvard Medical School, pointed out in a thoughtful editorial in the journal Science: “One may be able to recognise good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rear-view mirror.”

Even pre-eminent researchers may underestimate the significance of their findings at the time they obtain them. When Salvador Luria, my university microbiology professor, received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he made the point eloquently, sending a humourous cartoon to all who had congratulated him on the award. It depicted an elderly couple at the breakfast table. The husband, reading the morning newspaper, exclaims: “Great Scott! I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize for something I seem to have said, or done, or thought, in 1934!”


Discoveries can come from unforeseen directions, as seemingly unrelated and obscure research areas intersect unexpectedly. In a 2011 editorial, the French biologist Francois Jacob described the research that led to his 1965 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His lab had been working on the mechanism that under certain circumstances causes the bacterium E. coli suddenly to produce bacterial viruses. At the same time, another research group was analysing, also in E. coli, how the synthesis of a certain enzyme is induced in the presence of a specific sugar.

As Jacob put it: “The two systems appeared mechanistically miles apart. But their juxtaposition would produce a critical breakthrough for our understanding of life.” Thus was born the concept of an “operon”, a cluster of genes whose expression is regulated by an adjacent regulatory gene.

Another quintessential example of both the synergy and serendipity of basic research is the origin of recombinant DNA technology, the prototypical technique of modern genetic engineering (sometimes called “genetic modification”, or GM).

It resulted from a combination of findings in several esoteric, largely unrelated areas of basic research in the early 1970s. Research in enzymology and nucleic acid chemistry led to techniques for cutting and rejoining segments of DNA.

Advances in fractionation procedures permitted the rapid detection, identification and separation of DNA and proteins. And the accumulated knowledge of microbial physiology and genetics allowed foreign DNA to be introduced into a cell and made to function there.

The result was the birth of modern biotechnology. Over the past 40 years, recombinant DNA technology has revolutionised numerous industrial sectors, including agriculture and pharmaceuticals. It has enabled the development of vaccines against infectious diseases and drugs that treat non-infectious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and some genetic disorders.

Another example is the creation of hybridomas, hybrid cells created in the laboratory by fusing normal white blood cells that produce antibodies with a cancer cell. Researchers wanted to combine the cancer cells’ rapid growth and the normal cells’ ability to dictate the production of a single specific “monoclonal” antibody. Their goal was to learn more about the rates of cellular mutation and the generation of antibody diversity.