A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland for the first time in 7.5 years since I completed my postdoctoral research there in 2003.
I will always remember Maryland as a magical place, full of wonderful trails to walk, magnificent trees and forests, and of course the fantastic opportunities of the NIH.
The NIH that I encountered was special because of its independence of grants and the regular political issues surrounding the funding of the laboratory. Perhaps I was naïve, but I don’t think so; for me the NIH was pure science.
Having been invited as a seminar speaker, despite serious concerns a few weeks back about the passing of the budget and the potential lockout of NIH researchers, I found the NIH (or at least those I came into contact with) still populated by outstanding researchers with a very strong commitment to basic research.
I very much understand the idea that the general public wants accountability to the tax dollars that go towards research. However, as important as preclinical research is (now commonly dubbed “translational research”), I’ve been of the opinion for many years that there is absolutely no replacement for basic research. How can we possibly understand what causes cancer cells to proliferate incessantly, when we don’t really understand how a normal cell grows and divides?
I don’t mean to say that clinical trials should be slowed or jeopardized in any way. However, I do think that basic researchers have to stop “going underground” and that it’s time to become unapologetic for the desire to push new frontiers forward.
For a number of years now I’ve been increasingly concerned that science–rather biomedical science–is evolving and diverging into two radically different directions. The first direction is that of clinical science. In this type of research, it matters not what the mechanism of action of a specific drug is, but simply how effective it is. The researchers are concerned with the concentrations of the drug, its mode of delivery, its toxicity, and of course most importantly, its efficacy.
In the second diverging direction of research, the researchers are primarily concerned with basic fundamental studies; figuring out how things actually work. All of the potential applications are therefore left for the future, with the emphasis clearly on understanding the molecular basis and mechanisms by which cells, proteins, and DNA function.
My underlying concern is not that these two realms are showing signs of diverging farther apart, but rather that funding bodies are increasingly expecting researchers to be able to fulfill both of these two spheres simultaneously. This, in my view, is disastrous.
Researchers who specialize on tumor models in mice will not and cannot (in most cases) do the rigorous types of biochemical and cell biological research that are prevalent in the world of the basic researchers. One cannot expect them to have the expertise to be able to carry out high quality, controlled experiments (for the most part) in these areas. On the other hand, these researchers are extremely accomplished at carrying out the preclinical/translational studies that basic researchers are clueless about.
At the same time, funding bodies are putting pressure on basic researchers who do rigorous and exceptional studies at the level of cells, molecules, proteins and nucleotides, to start working in animal models. Zebrafish, fruit flies, worms, mice and even human samples. People such as myself, who have undergone extensive training in biochemistry and cell biology, see this as a huge waste of resources and time. When I need data from animal models, my best bet is to talk to the people–my colleagues–who already work in these animal models and have trained and developed expertise in these systems, and not to try these studies all on my own in an amateur fashion.
So for me it was a great pleasure to give a talk in the presence of biochemists and cell biologists who completely appreciate the value of my own basic research. Perhaps my greatest delight was that after the talk, in the question-and-answer session, no one asked me whether the proteins I work on are up-regulated or down-regulated in cancer cells; the only questions I received were those that related to the fundamental mechanisms that I described.
Thus, my visit to NIH recharged my batteries and once again provided me with a scientific “moral compass”.