The importance of, being curious

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  • May I977 Volume 2, No. 5


    Trends in brief

    News Pllgt

    John Paul looks at the future role of molecular biology in medicine

    Gkrard Marbaix discusses the function of poly A on eukaryotic messengers in Open Question

    TIBS crossword competition II

    N 10;

    N lot

    N lo!

    I I The importance of B being curious

    T hose of us who engage in basic biochemical research and who supervise graduate students similarly engaged, should be ashamed of ourselves as spendthrifts, wastrels and perverters of the Young. For, we are told, much of University education is irrelevant to The Needs of Society (whatever these may be) PhD work provides neither motivation nor adequate training for a career in industry, and much of academic research (pejoritatively described as curiosity-oriented) is at best a form of occupational therapy for university teachers and at worst a waste of scarce resources of money and talent. What is needed, we are informed, is more mission-oriented research and more exploitation of existing knowledge; as the late President Johnson remarked (and his sentiments, if not his words, have often been echoed in Britain), . . .A great deal of basic research has been done but I think the time has come to zero in on targets by trying to get our knowledge fully applied. We must make sure that no life-saving discovery is locked up in the laboratory.. .. And this philosophy is being increasingly reflected in the priorities with which granting agencies allocate the ever scarcer funds.

    These criticisms are not without sub- stance. The majority of students who suc- cessfully complete PhD work in bio- chemistry aim for careers in the educa- tional sector rather than industry. Only a small proportion of university science teachers in the U.K. ever apply for a research grant, and an even smaller pro- portion are successful. However, the oft- repeated charge that British scientists are good at basic research but poor at exploiting the results of that research in wealth-producing technology may not apply as much to biochemists as it is alleged to apply to physicists. But even if the diagnosis of our ills is correct, will the remedies suggested provide a cure? They may well kill the patient.

    Basic to the main arguments for curtail- ing curiosity-oriented research is the belief that the aim in view is best reached by a direct attack. But there is overwhehn-

    ing evidence that this belief is unfounded. In a dispassionate analysis of the factors

    that contributed most to the Top Ten cli- nical advances in cardiovascular and pulmonary medicine and surgery, Comroe and Dripps [l] examined 529 key articles chosen by 140 advisers of whom only 24% were basic scientists. Of these key articles, only about one-third had possible clinical applications in mind from the outset and could be definitely classed as mission- oriented. Most of the remaining two- thirds stemmed from university laborator- ies. Similar conclusions have been reached by others who have traced the usually serendipitous manner in which major medical advances have arisen from basic research. In addition, Fudenberg [2] has calculated the economic benefits of not suffering from the diseases thus cured. It is abundantly clear that not only are the costs of basic research relatively small but

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    the costs of nof doing such research may, in the long run, be greater than Society should bear.

    A second argument for curtailing cur- iositv-orientedresearch is that it is becom- ing