When working in a fundamental research laboratory in a cancer research institute, it is not unusual to hear the same refrain from friends or family, spoken with just a hint of irony: “So…. find anything yet?”
We are not necessarily in search of solutions to practical problems
Admittedly, the answer to this question usually involves a heartfelt and exhilarated declamation on fundamental research, praising its importance, its benefits, and its contributions, both fertile and essential to our society, but also speaks to the fulfilment and satisfaction of being involved in the advancement of knowledge. For the purpose of fundamental research is to advance knowledge, to understand the elements that surround us – it is, in fact, creativity-driven research on a quest to satisfy our curiosity.
Is that to say that the fundamental research community consists solely of academics building castles in the sky? I don’t think that anyone would dare suggest that physicist Albert Einstein was building castles in the sky when we know that it is from his fundamental work in quantum mechanics (1917) that the American Theodore Maiman was able to experimentally generate the laser (1960), a laser that, nowadays, allows surgeons to carry out microdissections in inaccessible and sensitive areas of the human body.
Who would have believed or even anticipated that such technological spin-offs could come from his research? No one. Not even Albert Einstein himself.
We are not necessarily in search of solutions to practical problems but to explain phenomena which at first glance, seems without immediate consequences.
It is reasonable to ask what concrete consequences may result from “the study of the composition of uninhabitable planets, inaccessible and lost in the vastness of the universe”, or perhaps “the theoretical determination of the infinite decimals of the irrational number π (Pi) in our daily life” and if it is truly useful to allocate financial and human resources to this type of project. The game is, without question, very much worth the candle. And it is not thanks to the unrelenting attempts to improve said candle that man discovered the incandescent bulb, which emerged thanks to the fundamental concept that is electricity.
Nowadays, we live in a mercantile society which demands productive research with immediate, useful results that deliver a return on investment. I can tell you that fundamental research is a far cry from this model: it is, in fact, disinterested research, precluding any idea of profitability, moving blindly forward – at least at first – in the infinitely small to define the infinitely large. Even if, most of the time, it is unpredictable as far as results go, it is the initiator of all progress. Too often, it lays hidden in the shadows of applied research. And yet, applied research builds on fundamental research, while the latter can’t move forward without the technical advances provided by applied research.
Unnoticed at the time of its purely fundamental discovery in the bacterial genome in 1987, the CRISPR-Cas system was back in fashion at the start of the millennium. It was in the process of trying to improve the efficiency of strains of bacteria that produce yogurt that applied research and fundamental research unlocked the mysteries of these bacteria. In fact, the decryption of the CRISPR-Cas system helped ascertain that these bacteria captured their enemies’ DNA to better fight them. CRISPR-Cas is in fact bacteria’s natural defense system against viruses, namely bacteriophages. It is by understanding the internal workings of CRISPR-Cas that researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were able to divert this bacterial immune system and turn it into a genuine biotechnology tool available to all.
The CRISPR system is able to distinguish very accurately the regions of the genome whereas the Cas enzymes (for CRISPR associated) activity acts like a pair of scissors and carves the DNA. This tool, currently revolutionizing both fundamental and applied research in molecular biology, offers hope of a technological evolution with substantial spin-offs, notably in health care, where the adjustment of mutations or the insertion of new genes could provide a lifelong cure of hereditary diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and certain cancers.
Fundamental research is long-term research, with discoveries that do not have immediate practical applications, nor foreseeable ones considering our current knowledge, and which may be quite surprising… “Serendipity – or the lucky researcher – is looking for a needle in a haystack and discovering a farmer’s daughter!” stated the American doctor Julius Comroe. As it was for Christopher Columbus when he set out to reach the East Indies by sailing westward and discovered the New World instead, a land unknown to Europeans, or the fortuitous discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming (Nobel laureate, Physiology- Medicine, 1928) who liked to say, unassumingly: “All the same, the spores didn’t just stand up on the agar and say ‘We produce an antibiotic, you know’.”
The today’s world is the reflection of the fundamental research of days gone by.
These fortuitous discoveries are as likely to be determining technological advances for long-term development. Any technical progress builds on the fundamental discoveries of the past. Thus, from the description of a single phenomenon, it is possible to generate a range of interdisciplinary applications. University research is a public asset with prodigious public interests. Things move quickly in the field of science, especially now that we have access to countless tools to hasten, improve and gather fundamental notions. For this reason, even a PhD student in fundamental sciences must choose a speciality so as to master and take stock of an entire, and often very narrow, field. Which means that the merit of a researcher’s discovery does not amount solely to his work, or to the work of a single team, but in fact to the work of all the previous generations who provided a supply of valid information which to support her hypotheses, as these, in turn, will be building blocks for future generations.
“It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject but, as the world becomes more complicated, so we are less and less able to carry through anything to a successful conclusion without the collaboration of others.” – Alexander Fleming
One might ask if investing all research funds to applied science wouldn’t be a more efficient strategy to increase innovation and productivity. Neglecting fundamental research would be catastrophic as this research stimulates applied research.
University research rests on three types of funding: governmental funding agencies, interested private or public partners, and the universities’ own operating funds. In Québec, as everywhere else in Canada, the federal government participates in the funding of university research through its three granting agencies, namely the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Unfortunately, in a difficult economic context, it has been tempting to redirect federal research funding towards projects with short-term cost-efficient applications, putting the interests of industry or other partners deemed strategically more important before those of potentially promising fundamental research projects.
Indeed, from 2007-2008 to 2015-2016, federal cutbacks have reduced the core funding of these three research agencies by 8.2%. The conclusions of the Naylor report, published recently, shows that funding from federal government sources accounts for less than 25% of total spending on research, while universities and colleges underwrite 50 % of these costs. This situation, highly abnormal on a global level, has adverse implications both on research and education across Canada.
This loss of funding is getting worse given that for the three funding agencies, we are seeing a net decrease on both the success rate and the number of projects being funded, even though the total amount of funding applications has seen an overall increase.
This short-term scientific progress strategy threatens growth, as the obsession for commercial results only bring about minor changes to existing solutions and tools, instead of more fundamental explanatory studies which support the emergence of unimagined discoveries. The commercialization of fundamental research forces researchers to steer, or even skew, their investigations, diverting them of their exploratory vocation. This also results in a loss of public accessibility to research results, industry partners being eager to protect their commercial interests.
From 2007-2008 to 2015-2016, the budget for researcher-initiated research has decreased by 3%, while we’ve seen a 35% raise in the priority-driven research budget. The Naylor report established that even though the number of researchers has increased during this period, the resources truly available per active researcher to undertake research have diminished by more or less 35%.
And so, fundamental and applied research complete one another, but are motivated by different vocations. Whereas a fundamental researcher must, at all times, question his hypotheses due to unexpected observations, in contrast, applied research imposes a pre-determined finality. It is therefore unrealistic to favour one type of research over the other, and the active support to these two types of research is essential to innovation.
Ph.D. student in molecular biology
Research laboratory of Sylvain Meloche
Marjorie’s doctoral work focuses on the proteins of the Src kinases family involved in tumour development. More specifically, she is looking to understand their mechanisms of action in tumour promotion and the resistance to the immune system’s antitumour power. The signaling characterization suggests that these kinases be put forward as promising therapeutic targets to inhibit the unwanted proliferation of cancer cells and to enhance their clearance by the immune system.
About fundamental and applied research:
« Imprévisibilité » (“Unpredictability”), address by Université de Liège Rector Prof. Bernard Rentier, March 30, 2006, during the honoris causa degrees awarding ceremony at the University de Liège. [http://recteur.blogs.ulg.ac.be/?page_id=43] (French only)
« La mondialisation de la recherche » (“The globalization of research”), by Gérard Fussman, Collège de France, 2011. [http://books.openedition.org/cdf/1526] (French only)
« La Sérendipité: le hasard heureux » (“Serendipity: the happy coincidence”), by Pek Van Andel and Danièle Bourcier, Herman, 2011 (French only)
« La recherche fondamentale, source de tout progrès » (“Fundamental research, source of all progress”) La revue pour l’histoire du CNRS – 24, by René Bimbot and Isabelle Martelly, published on October 5, 2009. [https://histoire-cnrs.revues.org/9141] (French only)
About research funding:
“Investing in Canada’s future – Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research” [http://www.sciencereview.ca/eic/site/059.nsf/vwapj/ScienceReview_April2017.pdf/$file/ScienceReview_April2017.pdf ]
« La recherche universitaire comme source économique » (“University research as economic resource“):
“Federal Funding of Basic Research”: CAUT Education Review, Vol 13, no 1, October 2013.
« Mémoire de l’ACPPU pour l’examen du soutien fédéral à la science fondamentale » (“CAUT Brief for Canada’s Fundamental Science Review”)
[https://council.caut.ca/docs/default-source/council-81/meeting-materials/14-(f)-m%C3%A9moire-de-l-39-acppu-pour-l-39-examen-du-soutien-f%C3%A9d%C3%A9ral-%C3%A0-la-science-fondamentale-(2016-09-30)(conseil-2016-11).pdf?sfvrsn=2] (French only)
« La recherche est sous-financée au Canada, selon un comité d’experts » (“Research underfunded in Canada, says expert panel”)
About the invention of the laser:
American Physical Society August/September 2005 (Volume 14, Number 8) Entire Issue: This Month in Physics.
History: Einstein predicts stimulated emission.
About Sir Alexander Fleming :
“The life of Sir Alexander Fleming: discoverer of penicillin”, André Maurois, Penguin Books, 1959
About de invention of the CRISPR-Cas9 system:
« L’avant CRISPR-Cas9 : les premiers pas de l’édition du génome » (Before CRISPR-Cas9 : the first steps of genome edition) article by Jacques Suaudeau published May 18, 2016.
“CRISPR-Cas9: A potential treatment for hereditary diseases”, video.
« BIOLOGIE — CRISPR : une révolution génétique à portée de main » (“Biology – CRISPR : a genetic revolution within arm’s reach ”, article published in DIRE, volume 25.2, Summer 2016, by Simon Mathien. [https://www.ficsum.com/dire-archives/ete-2016/biologie-crispr-revolution-genetique-a-portee-de-main/ (French only)
« CRISPR-Cas9, une révolution génétique qui promet beaucoup (et pose de nombreuses questions) » (“CRISPR-Cas9, a genetic revolution that hold much promise (and raises many questions))”.
About the collaboration between industry and public research:
Collaboration between Academia and the Pharmaceutical Industry: United to Find the Next Drug, article by Mathilde Soulez published January 19, 2017