Fostering basics with Nobel Laureates

The spectacular progress in  science over the last half-century comes as a result of the work of thousands of basic scientists whose primary goal was the understanding of the fundamental working of everything. Looking at the inventions being awarded with Nobel prize in recent years in physics, in chemistry, biology and medicine the importance of basic research has been highlighted. Many of the most impactful advancements laid in basic science decades or even centuries earlier and reveal the need for fundamental research. But the benefit of supporting basic research has been increasingly questioned in recent years while the concept of fundamental research seems to be undervalued. 

This is the concern expressed by many Nobel Laureates like the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Prize for elucidating the mechanism of autophagy, the process that cells use to destroy and recycle cellular components. Talking with him during the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting he once again confirmed the importance of supporting basic research. He expressed his concern about the fact that basic research, at the global level, is not funded in a balanced way to the applied, as greater emphasis is placed on research projects that produce quick and more practical results, reversing the impression that his country is spending a lot of money in this area. “We have put more emphasis and money on technology advancing at a dizzying pace. But basic research doesn’t need a huge fund. We need a systematic and long-term support, clearly project oriented “ he says. On the other hand he encourages the new researchers to get involved in basic research rather than following known paths.

The 73-year-old scientist of Tokyo Institute of Technology is the 25th Japanese Nobel Laureate and the 4th Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He seems to be calm but, on the contrary, he is not at all because he feels that time is chasing after him. He believes that due to his advanced age he will not be able to answer all the fundamental scientific questions that he would like to address and that arise everyday. It’s already known that many of the biggest breakthroughs in our lifetimes started out as almost arbitrary questions. “There is no finish line for science. When I answer a question, another one new comes. Of course I’ve never had any beliefs that I will find all the answers. So I keep on asking as long as there are so many fundamental questions that remain unanswered. Autophagy is now popular, but some basic mechanisms, such as the process of cellular degeneration or RNA metabolism, have not been fully elucidated” says the distinguish scientist. This, moreover, is the advice given to young researchers who usually choose safe fields, which provide to them quick research results: “Take your risks but always return to fundamental questions. You may not succeed, but you can feel the challenge, which is equally important!”.

Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi claims that science should be curiosity driven” but he is not the only one. Every time the awardee of the 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine  Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo is asked about the motive for his research, he says that “It’s definitely his sense of curiosity, a feeling of wanting to know something. In one of his  interviews for Japanese media the 76-year-old distinguished Kyoto University professor reawarded for developing “Opdivo,” a new cancer immunotherapy treatment medication, underlies the value of basic research by saying that: “he would be honored if the feat could serve as an encouragement to those involved in basic research. His great achievement should pave the way for more investments in fundamental research and, as he puts it, beefing up “systematic and long-term” support for young researchers in this country”.

During the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, two years ago the invest in fundamental science, was also an important message from the Dutch Nobel Laureate Ben Feringa,  who won the Chemistry Nobel Prize in 2016, together with J. Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. He had mentioned then that in today’s fast paced research, the most researchers don’t have enough patience for fundamental research. Feringa encourages all researchers not only to focus on short-term research but to enjoy the beauty of science because he thinks that research is a very “fun” process. In a private short chat with journalists he said: “If you asked me, I would tell you that all universities and research institutes should turn to a “playground” for young scientists. We are like children playing, but our games are very serious, as we are looking for solutions to major problems such as illnesses. But we need enough freedom to express our creativity. We need enough time to think. You can’t dictate discovery anyway. All inventions or discoveries are based on fundamental science. That’s why I always say give enough space to young scientists, let them undertake initiatives. And who knows someone may get a Nobel!”

According to Ronai & Griffiths in “The Case for Basic Biological Research there is “a critical lack of systematic studies that provide evidence especially for the importance of basic biological research”, while Jeffrey Gardner, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County claims that “the benefits of basic research are often not instantly recognizable and that the difficultly in justifying basic research perhaps is in part a branding problem”. Gardner adds that the  goal is to clarify the fundamental principles of nature and their adjustment to the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The concern about the funds invested in an unbalanced way to applied research has also been expressed by the former Energy European Commissioner Philippe Busquin some years ago by saying: “Rather than asking about the future of basic research in Europe, we need to ask what’s the future of Europe without basic research!” (Book: Science without Boundaries: Interdisciplinarity in Research,  Society and Politics, Willy Ostreng). But here is the main role of public bodies for funding of research like the ERC, to evaluate the impact of their grants. Other world funding bodies should follow ERC by underlying that basic research is worth the investment. For example, on 15 July of 2016 the European Investment Bank approved a €180-million loan to Greece (which the Greek government would top up with €60 million) in order to start up an agency for supporting basic research, sending a clear message to politicians globally.

“Unfortunately, the evaluation of EU-funded projects is mainly based on clearly defined, quantifiable and measurable criteria which lead to the development of novel services and/or equipment into a timely-manner way. However, the outcomes derived from basic research are long-term and there is a need of time before producing applied results”, adds Dr. Christos Frantzidis a researcher form the Laboratory of Medical Physics, Medical School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Basic research needs patience, time and support. Unfortunately it’s hard to predict in advance the significant real-world benefits that could yield. 

Vasiliki Michopoulou
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