Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Government funding of basic research essential, Nobel prize-winners say

Here’s one thing that the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine share with last year’s team (aside from ties to our agency): Both urge support for government funding of basic research.

A story in the Washington Post quoted this year’s winner Randy Schekman of UC Berkely:
“Our investment in basic science in this country is crucial. One can understand an important process that can be useful in biotech and other industries.”
After his win last year, John Gurdon pointed out that his work 50 years ago had no apparent relevance for developing new therapies and would have a hard time getting funding today. His seemingly impractical discovery in tadpoles helped launch the field of regenerative medicine, which has so far led to a number of therapies being tested in people.

Thomas Sudhof shared his co-winner’s concerns in a story written by Krista Conger for Stanford University:
"I think that in general the value of science is being heavily discussed in the U.S., and it worries me tremendously," said S├╝dhof said during the press call in response to a question about declining levels of funding for this type of research. "In my personal view, Western civilization is based in part on science; it is part of our Greco-Roman heritage, this search for truth. But it seems to me that there is a significant, increasingly vocal population that thinks we shouldn't go after truth, and that truth is not important. That worries the hell out of me."
These concerns are particularly timely given cutbacks at the National Institutes of Health (the major funder of biomedical research in the U.S.) and now the government shutdown. A story in Wired quoted an unnamed government biomedical scientist talking about how the current shutdown is slowing research:
I don’t think the public realizes the devastating impact that this has on scientific research. Scientific research is not like turning on and off an assembly line. Experiments are frequently long-term and complicated. They involve specific treatments and specific times. You can’t just stop and restart it. You’ve probably just destroyed the experiment.

You also can’t necessarily recover. You can’t begin an experiment all over again. If you do, you’ll be set back months — if there’s even time and personnel to do it. But often, science moves rapidly, times change, and you can’t re-initiate the experiments. It’s an enormous loss to scientific research, an enormous loss of time and personnel.
The team that won this year’s Nobel prize started their work many decades ago, and were not initially all even studying human cells. The incremental nature of science means that the obscure research being funded today in such far-flung lab organisms as yeast, flies and zebrafish could one day generate new therapies for autism and schizophrenia, as Sudhof’s work is poised to do. Without funding for that research today, the therapies won’t be here tomorrow.

CIRM is funding basic research in California as well as later stage projects that are starting to test new therapies in people, but our funding isn’t enough. Scientists in California need colleagues throughout the country working together to make the discoveries that lead to future therapies.

Amy Adams

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