The current pandemic has dramatically shown how important scientific research is to our societies and yet, apart from during global health crises, science and innovation are rarely in the media and political spotlight. Research is crucial, and yet the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development spend on average just 2.58 percent of their gross domestic product to fund research, according the most recent data from the World Bank. Canada is well behind even that, at 1.57 percent.
Although governments are working to increase their budgets for research, how the funding is split between research fields is quite concerning. There are enormous discrepancies in the value given to some types of research and this is directly reflected in their funding. Canada projected that in 2018, over half of its research and development budget would be invested in business enterprises, which mostly conducts applied research, and 41 percent in higher education institutions. While the world focuses on fighting COVID-19, how can we look ahead to ensure that we maintain the source of innovation – fundamental research – to help us when we face the next crisis?
Fundamental research, the neglected child
Research is the investigation of a natural phenomenon undertaken to increase knowledge. In life sciences, fundamental (or basic) research studies natural phenomena to have a better understanding of life, while translational and applied research aim to understand disease and find cures. Fundamental research provides an essential base of knowledge on which applied research depends to initiate human-centered studies. Fundamental and applied research are therefore interdependent in being principal motors of innovation, essential for economic growth and prosperity.
Governments are taking the right steps by funding applied research during a global health crisis. But favouring one type of research, in the long run, can diminish innovation in many ways. First, because applied research depends directly on fundamental science, cuts in fundamental research slows down the generation of knowledge essential to applied and medical research.
To understand what goes wrong in a disease context, it is necessary to first understand how things work in a normal context. In other words, if basic mechanisms of life were not studied, understanding how these same mechanisms fail in disease would be impossible. If it wasn’t for fundamental discoveries, we would be deprived of the infrastructures, technologies and health care that we benefit from today. In fact, in the past 20 years, over half of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine were granted to fundamental discoveries that led to indispensable technologies such as in vitro fertilization, MRIs and cancer treatments.
Second, the overall lack of financing of fundamental investigations leads academic scientists toward more applied studies. To sustain their research, some researchers have to tweak their scientific goals to meet the standards that will grant them funding. In Canada, the budget cuts by former Prime Minister Harper coincided with a decimation of the number of basic science researchers: according to one report, fundamental studies dropped from 24 percent to 1.6 percent during the Harper years. In addition, a survey revealed that one-quarter of government scientists were forced to change their research goals to meet Harper’s new funding standards.
This still holds true today: fundamental work is generally supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, but to get sufficient funding researchers often link their work to applied studies to become competitive for other funding sources. Forcing scientists to fit into a mold introduces bias in how research is conducted – and bias can be detrimental to achieving quality science. This scientific rewiring completely defeats the purpose of academic research – to advance knowledge – and inhibits novel ideas that don’t fit the mold.
Finally, imposing trends for the next hot topic in research cannot bring novelty. Research is a creative and long-term process of exploration, taking detours and making errors, all of which are essential to the discovery process. Countless ground-breaking discoveries such as penicillin, insulin or X-rays were unintentional and resulted from curiosity and mistakes. Directing studies toward specific expectations through a funding imbalance discourages scientists to toe the line and limits creativity. Pressuring researchers to target predetermined goals causes a focus on a narrow spectrum of research, which is unproductive and unhealthy. Isn’t innovation all about thinking outside the box?
Why is fundamental research consistently undermined?
Decision makers can favour funding in research that brings short-term solutions without realizing the far-reaching importance of fundamental discoveries for societal and technological advances. Whereas basic research is somewhat long and abstract, applied sciences produce observable results which may be easier to relate to. Whether it is the general public, politicians or scientists, it is intuitive to understand the importance of curing disease. Therefore, promoting health-related research such as cancer research can be more attractive to scientists and politicians.
Most importantly, scientific research is undervalued because of a general lack of scientific literacy both regarding scientific content and methodology. There are multiple examples in the world of laboratories working on fundamental viral mechanisms that were granted significant funding to shift their research during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. Right after the outbreak, funding was cut, these studies were forgotten and ideas lost. As the SARS and COVID-19 viruses share similarities, the current COVID-19 pandemic may have followed a much different course if original funding had been sustained. We are currently witnessing what a reactive approach looks like – imagine how much better equipped we would be to tackle disease and environmental crises if we took a proactive approach and invested more in basic research.
How the balance can be restored
To balance science funding, it is critical to establish that the acquisition of knowledge through fundamental science is essential for effective technological and societal innovation. Better understanding of science and its methodology can attract more funding and restore the balance between different research domains. Countries that have followed scientific guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic are doing better than others. Greater integration of scientific research in the policy decision-making process will more efficiently halt the ongoing pandemic and prevent future global crises, ultimately benefitting our economies.
To achieve greater scientific impact, we all have a role to play to renew a societal interest in science. Researchers need to break open the doors of academia and make their discoveries accessible to the rest of the world by practising effective scientific communication through publications in scientific outreach journals and mainstream media sources (e.g., podcasts or Instagram). And why not include science communication as an element of academic excellence?
In addition, governments can promote scientific curiosity and critical thinking in all areas of the community, including in school curricula and by increasing funding of science communication in the media (talk shows, cartoons, podcasts) and pop-culture (festivals, arts, music). And finally, politicians should systematically integrate scientific discoveries and methodologies (such as real-life evidence and metrics) as key elements for making evidence-informed decisions. This could be achieved by giving a louder voice to scientific advisers. It is essential to bring the public, academia and politicians together to make science the societal issue it needs to be. Let’s invest in our future together: fund science!
Acknowledgements: this article was initially developed as part of ComSciCon CAN 2020. I would like to thank Tina Gruosso and David Haberl for their insightful comments.
Jack Bauer is a PhD student at Université de Montréal’s Institut de recherche en immunologie et en cancérologie.