Friday, October 2, 2015

The value in basic science funding isn't the science

We all know the argument that investment in basic science is an essential part of supporting medical and technological innovation, maybe more so now that several high-profile articles have highlighted the growing research investment gap between the US, Europe and China. A particularly good read is the report compiled by MIT scientists detailing the many ways in which US funding for basic science has fallen short. In all of these articles there is a fundamental omission: what about the scientists?

There is a certain difficulty in convincing the lay public that innovators rely on the advancement of fundamental science. As I complete my basic science PhD and prepare for the next stage of my career, I realize that basic science research has a direct, tangible and essential contribution to industry and innovation: it churns out highly skilled scientists. This alternate mechanism I propose is probably cast aside by academia's luddite tendencies, but I posit that the highly trained workforce coming out of basic science PhD programs is as important to the economy as the science itself.

Finding the right scientist for the job is hard work. "The Billion Dollar Molecule" by Berry Worth is a sort of biography of the Pharmaceutical giant Vertex when it began in 1989. A recurring challenge for the company was finding and convincing the right scientists to lead their research efforts. A Silicon Valley mantra rings true here: ideas are cheap -- but they're even cheaper if no scientists exist to develop them.

A basic science environment fosters scientists in a way that working at a big company can't. The role of a PhD program isn't to train students how to conduct science, but rather how to be scientists and conduct their own research. I'm sure it's possible get the same training in an industry context, but deadlines and quotas and investors are going to make it hard. It's not surprising that some of my PhD cohort worked in industry for several years before returning to school for real scientific training.

Only 14% of life science PhD students land tenure-track positions, according to NSF data. This isn't news, but its certainly not talked about in a scientific context. Nearly all 86% of these scientists eventually find job, and this is a boon for innovation and for the economy. This fact tends to be taboo in a lot of universities, as if they're afraid that debunking academia's Ponzi-scheme myth, but I propose it can help justify a stubborn Congress that basic science funding directly contributes to the economy.

I offer myself as an anecdote: I am currently working to transform my PhD research into the next stage of my career. Although I had no idea until recently, the research I've been conducting has some exciting implications for how we think about mutations in DNA. I think I can leverage those to improve drug development, clinical research and diagnostics. However, I would never have gotten here without the basic science PhD. Neither the science nor the scientist would have existed.

So why don't we hear this more complete argument for basic research funding more often?