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With controversies over The Canada First Research Excellence Fund, a recent funding initiative by the Canadian government that many feel prioritizes applied research at the expense of basic science, this raises the question: Why should we fund basic science research? What does the public gain from having their tax dollars support basic scientists? The truth is we don’t know…yet.

When we invest in basic science research, we might not be directly investing into immediate solutions to current problems in the same way that funding clinical trials would, but what we are doing is investing in ourselves. Basic science is our tool for a greater understanding of all biological phenomena. By limiting it, not only do we limit the discoveries that can progress to having clinical applications, but we also stifle innovation. Basic research is expensive, time-consuming, and is often misunderstood by the public. There is, more often than not, no way of knowing if or when a bench experiment will ever have an impact on society at large.  But when it does, the results can be extraordinary.

There is no better example of this than in the discovery of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) as the cause of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The time between the emergence of the disease, the identification of its cause, and the development of treatments for HIV/AIDS, has been described as one of the shortest in history (1). Half of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of the HIV virus in 1981, which they isolated and cultured from lymph nodes of patients with AIDS-like symptoms. This discovery and the subsequent cloning of the HIV retrovirus led to an understanding of the pathogenesis of AIDS and the rapid development of therapies. An important and often overlooked aspect of this quick response is the foundation of knowledge of retroviruses that existed prior to the discovery of HIV. Without all the previous work of animal retroviruses, as well as the development of techniques to culture human lymphocytes, the rapid response to HIV/AIDS would not have been possible (2).

To take it one step further, we need to support basic science not only because it will provide a foundation of knowledge for limitless practical applications but also because acquiring knowledge is the only we can get closer to answering life’s fundamental questions. What makes us human? What is consciousness? What is the purpose of non-coding DNA? When we as a society only focus on maintenance and every day problems, it’s easy to lose sight of the incredible and innovative things we can accomplish when we support each other.


(1): http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/press.html

(2): http://www.nature.com/onc/journal/v24/n39/full/1208980a.html

Isabella Albanese

December 30, 2014

From Bench to Beyond