To the Editor:
All scientists would love to see their research save lives, develop products or processes that will advance our civilization and reap big economic returns. But should these be the primary focus of scientists as they go to work in their labs every day?
“Yes,” says David Huizenga of Tao Life Sciences, according to an article in the Oct. 1 issue of the Mount Desert Islander. But as a scientist myself, I say “no.”
The big scientific discoveries do not result because scientists are motivated to save lives or make money; the big advances occur because scientists are obsessed every day with finding answers to the fundamental questions of how nature works. And their primary focus must remain fixed on the generation of hard data that will unravel these mysteries. Make no mistake, this is a 24 hour per day effort for scientists – waking up in the middle of the night with exciting ideas and then spending long days in the lab seeing them through.
Scientists who focus first and foremost on basic research are following the most effective, albeit sometimes less direct, path to the scientific discoveries that will save lives.
For example, Taq polymerase is a protein (an enzyme) that is critical for the replication of DNA. But its discovery occurred not because scientists were looking for a way to save lives, but because scientists first wondered how life could exist in the piping hot springs and thermal vents in the desert.
The relevance to saving lives was not immediately apparent to the original question. Today, Taq polymerase is the foundation for PCR, the polymerase chain reaction, which is used extensively in basic and clinical research, disease diagnosis, resolving family heritage and solving crimes.
It’s worth billions to the world’s gross national products. Yet, a grant application to study life in hot springs might not get support in today’s research funding environment where scientists are expected to focus primarily on research that can link immediately to saving lives or making money.
The funding for research today is on a course to weaken U.S. scientific leadership. In addition to dwindling funds, the emphasis has shifted to the mistaken notions of the David Huizengas of this world and those of some politicians, administrators and CEOs.
No one argues, including me, that there is important life-saving research that needs immediate funding: research on the causes and cure of disease, food safety and future, as yet unknown health dangers. Note the recent success in the development of an Ebola vaccine. But the mind of the scientist, whether in private or commercial labs, must be focused on the fundamental processes that govern the natural world in order to make the discoveries that really will make a difference; the questions of how the natural world works.
The job of how their research findings can be parlayed quickly into patents or start-up companies should be the job of administrators. The idea that “If scientists don’t come to work each day to save lives, (they should) find another job” is the misguided fantasy of public relations departments and a pure illusion.
In contrast, institutions, companies and countries must encourage and nurture the imagination and sometimes esoteric inspirations of scientists to explore the natural world and understand how it works. History shows that this focus leads to exciting scientific advances enabling us to “live long and prosper.”
John J. Eppig