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Will Research for Food


Not having enough money to conduct basic research isn’t a new problem, but the separation between basic and translational research is increasingly blurred with each generation. Perhaps it’s this gradual merge that is underscoring the shift this generation from public to private funding for basic research, as portrayed by Broad in The NYT this week.

In the past, academic science was akin to studying literature or other higher arts – not for the purpose of profit, but for knowledge and enlightenment. Historically, funding for basic science research was both private and public: Galileo’s research was funded by private individuals while Darwin obtained government funding for his Beagle voyage (but subsidized the research with private funds).

Today in academic campuses, no matter the type of research, scholars are heard in hallways claiming, “funding is almost impossible to get.” Seriously, I overheard this today.

AAAS policy analyst Steven A. Edwards stated in the NYT piece, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.” In my meager 20 years in science, I have seen advancements in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism research advance at a greater pace than rare disease research, in part in thanks to private funding. And of course, the tortoise-paced publicly funded Human Genome Project rapidly accelerated once the competing private hare Celera entered the race.

But capitalism thrives on “what’s in it for me.” So when science research is not paired with quick profit or even generational profit, who is to fund scientific progress? Is the role of government to subsidize research that is not immediately translatable? Or is the government’s role to establish the research priorities for the nation? Is privatized funding a solution to the lack of national resources? Or does it shift scientific focus to generate knowledge that is important only to those with power and money?