Investing in basic research
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We need to go back to basics if we want to be innovative
Australian scientists and engineers are among the most inventive and resourceful individuals on the planet. Any initiative that enables their ideas to see the light of day and be tested in the marketplace should be lauded for the forward-thinking policy it is.
However, any policy that looks to improve innovation at the applied end would be incomplete when neglecting the basic research that underpins it.
This month the Turnbull government unveiled a new $1 billion business-based innovation initiative aimed at developing science and technology into commercial outcomes. In addition to the much-needed injection of funding to the CSIRO and the $100 million in tax incentives for “angel” investors and venture capitalists, a major component of the initiative is a $250 million Biomedical Translation Fund that seeks to strengthen industry collaboration with universities. Although this injection of funds is of course welcomed, the importance of investing in basic research should not be overlooked.
Basic research encompasses both the “pure” disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and medicine, as well as the “applied” scientists who use animal models to answer fundamental questions about life, nature and the universe. In the field of medical research, it is the basic sciences that help us to understand diseases in order to find new treatments, diagnostics and cures.
Basic research is a costly, laborious and iterative process, and there are no guarantees that a given line of inquiry will bear fruit. Nevertheless, a critical mass of basic science is the key to innovation. It is only through the preservation of our collective expertise that science is able to push forward into the unknown.
In medical research, the transition of basic research into clinical outcomes is known as the “translational pipeline”. It comprises basic and applied scientists at one end and “translational researchers” and clinical trials at the other. Ideas and discoveries at the basic end feed into the pipeline and beneficial patient outcomes come out the end. The “pipeline”, however, is a misnomer. It is more akin to a pyramid or a funnel, with a broad base representing the basic research and the smaller pointy end representing successful clinical outcomes. In other words, a lot of basic science feeds the process.
The numerous benefits of basic research to all quarters of society have been well-described but one of the most relevant reasons for maintaining basic research is ensuring we can efficiently tap into international research. When scientific breakthroughs are made in other countries, and they frequently are, we need basic researchers here in Australia who understand the research done abroad in order to translate those technologies into clinically and/or economically beneficial outcomes.
Science is hard and modern technology is complex. Being able to understand and implement a new discovery into a novel application or device is no mean feat. The people who can do this are professional scientists with international experience at the forefront of science who return to, or are drawn to, Australia and are actively engaged in research.
However, right now there is very little funding security in professional science, regardless of whether you are a medical researcher, a physicist or a chemist.
The cuts to the Australian Research Council and ever-diminishing success rate for NHMRC funding have created an atmosphere of uncertainty unparalleled in the history of science in this country.
Scientists are smart people, and smart people do not seek to stay on uncertain career paths. Right now, some our most talented, most experienced and most promising scientists are leaving the country or leaving the profession.
With the Medical Research Future Fund on the horizon, it is a shame to see Australia already losing some of our brightest minds due to a lack of interim funding. Not unlike the new innovation agenda, the future fund will do little for the pure disciplines. Without restoration of the Australian Research Council budget we will continue to lose our physicists, biologists and mathematicians to non-STEM careers.
Basic research is the bedrock from which the “ideas boom” will be launched. Although it doesn’t hold the immediate appeal that financially and clinically success stories do, basic research is the foundation of all innovation.
If we really want to become a nation of ideas and innovation we need to strengthen and support the entire research pipeline, not just the “pointy end”.
Dr Ben Roediger is head of the skin inflammation group at the Centenary Institute.