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Basic science: Stingy support stalls innovation

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Science Translational Medicine  06 May 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 286, pp. 286ec74
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aac4998

“This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say that that victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late.” ~Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

As the United States heads into a presidential election year, we’re likely to hear versions of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Now, a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) equates a strong economy with scientific innovation and warns that a boon of technology advances likely will occur outside of the United States because of poor policy decisions related to the funding of fundamental scientific research. The report notes that the percentage of the U.S. federal budget dedicated to research was ~10% in 1968 and was less than 4% in 2015.

Written by a committee of MIT researchers and administrators, the report predicts a future of stalled innovation through a series of case studies that describes specific impacts of the decline in U.S. federal funding on a variety of fields, some biomedical in nature. MIT’s president, L. Rafael Rief, has defined innovation as “the process of translating knowledge into progress.” By illustrating how funding cutbacks threaten specific scientific studies, the authors pinpoint areas of knowledge-generating basic research that, if nurtured, could help shape and grow the U.S. economy while providing benefits to society.

Some of the soil in need of tending falls in the realm of biomedicine. One example is basic research in neuroscience and aging, which can help to drive development of Alzheimer’s disease therapies that target the pathophysiological process (although the patient population is growing, the case study stresses that no new drugs were approved in more than a decade). Another area is bacterial pathogenesis, which can build a knowledge base with which to attack antibiotic resistance. One case study suggested that small support for synthetic biology research has fueled a migration of leading scientists engaged, for example, in the engineering of therapeutic viruses that find and destroy cancer cells.

The past decade has witnessed a focus on translational biomedical research. But the report reminds us that the path to translation begins with intricate studies of fundamental human biology and engineering science.

MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit, “The future postponed: Why declining investment in basic research threatens a U.S. innovation deficit.” (MIT, Cambridge, MA, 2015). [Full Text]

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