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Funding Basic Research Boosts Innovation, Panelists Say

The Future Postponed 2.0
Andrea Ghez, Marc Kastner, Maria Zuber and Michele Pagano discuss the role of basic research in scientific innovation at the AAAS Colloquium Series. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Government investment in basic scientific research is an essential factor in driving innovation, according to a panel discussion that coincided with the release of a report examining the impact of declining federal support for basic research.

Basic research lays the groundwork for future scientific and technological development and it often addresses society’s largest challenges such as mitigating climate change, curbing antibiotic resistance or preventing terrorism, said Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during a monthly colloquium lecture on Wednesday at AAAS headquarters.

“Basic research is needed to fully understand these complex systems and expand the menu of possible solutions. Without the fundamental knowledge provided through basic research, we’re limiting our innovation potential,” said Zuber, who co-authored an op-ed with AAAS CEO Rush Holt in support of basic research funding that was published Wednesday in The Hill.

In the piece Zuber and Holt wrote, “Federal agencies, with bipartisan support, are the primary investor of cutting-edge basic research that fuels industry’s ability to harness that knowledge into innovative products and business. But federal budgets, in real terms, have shrunk.”

Research and development should not be treated as just another budget expenditure, Zuber said.  Federal R&D spending has remained essentially flat since 2005, and the 2011 Budget Control Act, a package of automatic spending cuts known as the “sequester,” only exacerbated that reality, she said. Although partial and temporary funding measures have been put into place, limits on R&D spending are slated to return in October if Congress does not act, Zuber said.

Holt added, “If we don’t make the investments, we shortchange ourselves and even more, we shortchange future generations.”

Innovations such as GPS, Google’s search engine and anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV are among scientific advances that grew from federally funded basic research, the speakers noted.

“Almost every technological or medical miracle of today finds its roots in fundamental discovery-driven research done much earlier. While it’s very important to tell these stories of how past investments in research have paid off in today’s technologies, we’ve not spent enough time telling how research cutbacks today will affect the science of tomorrow,” said Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and chair of the “The Future Postponed 2.0: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit” report.

He added, “This is a more challenging story to tell because it requires looking into the future. It requires vision rather than reflection.”

The report details 13 current opportunities for basic research that hold the potential of  solving future problems but would be at risk without sufficient federal support for basic research, Kastner said.

Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy and head of UCLA's Galactic Center Group, whose research is cited in the report as an example of work that could be sidetracked without the federal research funding. Ghez has been able to enhance her research by using adaptive optics imaging technology that compensates for the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere by using a laser to probe the atmosphere, resulting in much sharper images.

“When you have a completely new way of looking at things, you find things that you did not expect,” Ghez said.

The technology can correct only about half of the problems that exist in the atmosphere, Ghez noted. Advancing adaptive optics technology with the use of multiple lasers would increase the scientific potential of today’s technology and enable the application of this technology to the next generation of telescopes, she said.

“This is just a little insight into one example of a technology that would have tremendous impact in our astronomical pursuits,” Ghez added. The technology would also enable advances in other fields, including biotechnology and telecommunications, she said.

Also featured in the report is the work of Michele Pagano on the circadian clock. Pagano is chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Disruption of the circadian rhythm carries human health impacts, including an increased risk of breast cancer, metabolic diseases such as type-2 diabetes and mood disorders, he said. Research on the circadian clock will affect our understanding of these diseases, Pagano noted. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of the circadian clock can be used to develop drug treatments, too, he added.

“You need basic science to ultimately translate this knowledge into something useful,” Pagano said.