For the past 10 years–my career as an independent investigator–I feel as though I have been swimming against the tide. The science that I was trained to do, the critical thinking and desire to understand the fundamental basis of how cells function at the molecular and even atomic level, has increasingly been attacked as unnecessary. Science on the fringe. Playing around with proteins and molecules for sheer curiosity. Should we expect the taxpayers to foot the bill for grown-ups to play with expensive toys for no real purpose?
This type of thinking, perhaps best illustrated by some of the comments made by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, poses a great risk to the advance of science.
Nobel Prize winner Arthur Kornberg famously wrote:
“No matter how counterintuitive it may seem, basic research has proven over and over to be the lifeline of practical advances in medicine. Without advances, medicine regresses and reverts to witchcraft.”
By the way, both Kornberg’s son, Roger, and former student Randy Schekman (I’ll be coming to that) also are Nobel Laureates.
But the Kornberg quote remains as true as ever. Despite this, there is ever-increasing pressure on scientists to move to “translational realms.” Well what is there to “translate” if no one structures the language in the first place? I mean, sure it is important to bring drugs along down the pipeline and test them. But if no one is there to understand how things work, then the number of new drugs to test will dwindle and there will no longer be anything to test.
Validation, however, comes in the form of a Nobel prize this year to be awarded to 3 researchers who have contributed greatly to my very own field: that of understanding how vesicles, membranes and proteins are shuttled around within cells–or released from cells. The complex machinery controlling these processes has been studied by a large number of researchers over the past several decades, and advances have been phenomenal. I heartily congratulate each of the 3 researchers, Jim Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof for their outstanding contributions to the field. Much of their work has driven the field forward for everyone else. At the same token, I could easily find another 10-15 researchers whose achievements in the field could arguably rival those of the awardees.
For me, though, that is not the point. The real value of the award is the validation of this area of basic research–my area. There is a new spring in my step (not because of my orthotics), knowing that after all, progress in my field is appreciated. At least by some.