Funding of basic science

Hi readers!

Now that we all were given the chance to introduce ourselves… let’s move for the series of free-topic posts! This is going to be interesting 😉

In this post I want to highlight why I think the research that all of us are doing here and therefore, my job, is essentialand why it should be supported more than ever.

Most academic research can be considered as “basic or fundamental”, as it aims to get an understanding of natural or other fundamental phenomena. It is motivated by a driving interest about the unknown. Sad to say, this type of academic research is often denoted with euphemisms such as “curiosity-driven research” or “long-term research”, what might make it lose its attractiveness by financial institutions.

This basic research differs from applied researchbecause it is not focused on solving an immediate problem faced by a society. To some, applied research might therefore seem more worthwhile, especially when expendable resources are limited, because money invested in basic research may or may not have an immediate benefit. This situation leads to focusing efforts on practical solutions to some of the most pressing dilemmas, including widespread diseases, climate change, food scarcity, etc., thereby reducing funding for fundamental science.

However, we need to keep in mind that, although fundamental research might not seem to immediately solve any issue, it remains the solid foundation for future fixes. Breakthrough discoveries all lie on firm bases established by basic science. We cannot jump directly into developing new technologies without having a fair understanding on the tools that need to be applied.

So, what is the consequence of all this? That the very limited funding available for basic science changes dramatically how science works today. And what is worst is that it can turn into bad science.

Let’s see how this can be…

First of all, the fact that scientists need to publish groundbreaking results in order to get funding is affecting the whole system. They are forced to keep their backs covered by just focusing on publishing, rather than carrying out high-quality research. There is a lot of pressure to generate positive results, because failed studies can mean the end of scientific careers. And this is paradoxical, as most of the times you can learn more from studies that fail rather than the ones that succeed.

Furthermore, grants frequently last around 3 to 5 years, which prevents scientists from choosing long-term projects. And this is, again, another paradox, as discoveries would usually take decades to uncover. And not only the time-scale of the study is affected, but also the topic of the research study. Due to the limited economic resources, researchers would be directed towards choosing safer subjects that are easier to publish, rather than riskier ones.

Finally, another consequence of this situation is the highly competitive process you must go through if you want to apply for funding. Research would be way more productive if scientists would focus their efforts on science as such rather than in loads of bureaucratic stuff.

Obviously, the most direct way to amend this problem is by more support from public institutions, i.e., more money available for science.

This would mitigate the pressure to get brilliant results, allow to have a broader diversity of research topics, and see how long-term studies come to light. It would also improve the honesty of scientists assessing their own work, as right now it can get biased by the desperate will for good results.

Another action to cope with the problem would be a change in the way the research is evaluated. Instead of just awarding the results, we should award the accuracy and robustness of the methods applied to carry it out, independently of the success of the results. As I said, negative results can be as useful as positive ones, or even more. Actually, there is already a journal that publishes this type of studies in which a scientist that follows a rigorous method does not come up with a positive outcome; the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

Overall, higher incentives applied in the right way can improve the quality, transparency, and efficiency of research. But well, science is rather young as for a profession (it started in 18thcentury), so I guess it is normal that we are still trying to figure out how to carry it out in the best way.

Written by Lorena Baranda, PhD student at University of Rome Tor Vergata

Image credit, “Publish or perish”: NEA Inc, 1992 from Pinterest

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