Last October’s Nobel Prize announcements were a thrilling celebration of the bold creativity that propels science. News reports brought us glimpses of pre-dawn phone calls to stunned researchers. For a few moments, the world was wowed by the sheer power of human discovery.
The celebration was all too short, however. We must applaud our scientific risk takers throughout the year. For it is the day-in, day-out curiosity, wonder, and unflagging persistence that fuels maverick researchers, in fields such as biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics.
Big acknowledgements like the Nobel begin with questions whose answers may be found only in basic scientific research, done primarily for the discovery of knowledge. In the case of the 2013 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, HHMI Investigators Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof, along with James Rothman, worked independently to answer a fundamental question: How are proteins and other molecules transported into and out of cells? Their research, which you can read about in this issue of the HHMI Bulletin, spans different organisms and different systems, each revealing key molecular details of that process.
The work demonstrates the rewards of investing in basic discovery research. Schekman, for instance, decided to study cellular transport in yeast when he was starting his first lab; it was a departure from his graduate and postdoctoral work into a new and little-studied area. No one could have predicted that understanding the secretory pathway and how vesicles move in and out of cells would have implications in medicine. Yet today, thanks in part to Schekman’s work, a third of insulin used by diabetics worldwide and the entire global supply of hepatitis B vaccine are produced in yeast.
Like the best entrepreneurs, promising young scientists need the capital and time to pursue novel approaches and original thinking.
But our idea pipeline is at serious risk. Federal and state funding for foundational research in universities have been repeatedly slashed, leaving many young scientists scrambling for support when they should be thinking big. Corporations once known for funding blue-sky research have largely cut back as well. Even private foundations have increasingly shifted toward applied disease research, at the expense of core knowledge.
To address the need for basic research support, HHMI has joined with five other private nonprofit organizations—the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Kavli Foundation, and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement—to form the Science Philanthropy Alliance, with an aim to increase funding for discovery research. We hope that other philanthropists, as well as universities and government agencies, will join our efforts to channel new resources toward basic science.
This kind of high-risk, high-reward research could not be funded any other way. Like the best entrepreneurs, promising young scientists need the capital and time to pursue novel approaches and original thinking.
One approach that philanthropies can take to broaden investment in basic science is through partnerships, such as the initiative HHMI launched in 2011 with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to help a talented group of plant scientists move their research in creative directions. You can read about some of their discoveries regarding plant immune defenses in this Bulletin. Their findings may help address food supply challenges facing the world today.
And in this issue, you can learn about Danny Reinberg, a biochemist who, with the help of an HHMI Collaborative Innovation Award, shifted his lab’s focus in an unexpected direction: using the ant as a model organism to study epigenetics and its influence on animal behavior. In this case, giving Reinberg the freedom to step out of his comfort zone and collaborate with researchers with disparate expertise has paid off in a big way.
The public return on investment from the endeavors of these and other basic research scientists is real. Such research will continue to change the future and the quality of our lives if we can galvanize a new generation of scientists striving for unpredictable discoveries. It may be 20 or even 40 years before you read about the results in stories of Nobel Prize winners, but the impact will be profound—every day of the year.