Basic Research – What’s the Point?

I am what is known in the research trade as a ‘basic’ researcher. It’s not that my work is simple. What basic research means is that the work doesn’t have any immediate real world application.

In some people’s eyes that means it’s not useful, or ‘research for the sake of research’. In my opinion it’s pretty exciting – I look at how and more importantly why things move around inside cells. Intrigued? Read about it here.

These scientists might be doing basic research, just don't ask what's in the tube.
These scientists might be doing basic research, just don’t ask what’s in the tube.

Some research has direct applications – researching new drugs, new technology, the effect of various factors on health and the environment, you know – ‘useful stuff’. The thing about all of that research is that it has its foundations deeply rooted in knowledge gained from basic research.

Now don’t get me wrong I like the stuff that comes out of ‘useful’ research. I’m keen to find out how many rashers of bacon I can chow down on before I’ll get cancer. If I get ill I’d definitely want a new drug that could treat me. I’m eager to find out how much we’re screwing up the planet. Research that translates to the real world is awesome. I just think basic research should get more credit, or at least less flack, for contributing to science and our understanding of how things work.

Most importantly, basic research deserves to get funding. Not just because it’s interesting, but because we don’t know what useful things may come out of it one day in the future. If BuzzFeed has taught me anything, it’s that a point is always made best in the form of a list. So here are my ‘Top 3 Basic Research to Real World Breakthroughs ’. Catchy name, no?

1.       The Structure of DNA

DNA_double_helix_45Raging misogyny and racism aside, if Watson and Crick hadn’t taken Roselyn Franklin’s data without her permission* and worked out the structure of DNA…well someone would have probably worked it out eventually. But that doesn’t take away from their combined genius in solving the structure. They also did ground breaking work to discover how genes in DNA are made into protein. Intellectually speaking they were/are pure brilliance.

Now, this may all seem applicable to the real world in the first instance but when you think about it, Watson and Crick wanted to know the structure of DNA and how it worked purely for the knowledge. When they made this humanity-changing intellectual breakthrough, they had no idea that one day our knowledge of DNA would lead to huge leaps forward in medical diagnosis and treatment, or for that matter the ‘Who’s the daddy?’ paternity tests of Jeremy Kyle. The latter is more important. Obviously.

2.       The discovery of cellulose.

800px-Plastic_objectsCellulose; everyone’s favourite plant based, un-digestible polysaccharide. I’d guess when Anselme Payen discovered this polymer in 1838 he was just really psyched to find out more about the molecules in plants. I’d certainly be surprised if he envisioned that one day cellulose would pave the way for polymer science and one of our greatest inventions – plastic. Don’t think plastic is terrific? Look around you– how much stuff is made out of plastic? Plastic has made manufacturing easy. The discovery of cellulose as a natural polymer aided polymer research in years to come, most notably the Nobel Prize winning work of Hermann Staudinger. In turn, understanding polymers provided a means to produce many different and useful types of plastic that we can use to make stuff cheaply and easily.

3.       Radioactivity

Radioactivity_symbolMarie Curie. She was one seriously cool lady. Alongside her also very cool husband, Pierre, she discovered radioactivity.  After years of toil they purified and discovered polonium and radium. The research was unquestionably driven by the desire to simply understand what radioactivity was. The work has been instrumental in helping us understand basic physics at an atomic and sub-atomic level. Despite this, the research Marie and Pierre did has given rise to many real world changes including nuclear energy, medical treatments such as radiotherapy to treat cancer, alongside uses in sterilisation of food and other fields of research.

So there you have it, my ‘Top 3 Basic Research to Real World Breakthroughs ’. But there have been way more. What have I missed out? What would go on your list? Let us know in the comments below.

Post by: Liz Granger

Twitter: @Bio_Fluff

*This is only one side of the story. Read more about the dynamic between Rosalind Franklin, her colleagues and Watson and Crick, here and here.

4 thoughts on “Basic Research – What’s the Point?”

  1. Nice post. Think it’s a little lazy to repeat the old ‘raving misogyny’ and ‘taken Franklin’s data without permission’ lines on Watson and Crick, though, even en passant and however much of an arse Watson has made of himself in the years since. Though ‘heroine Franklin robbed by misogynists’ is the popular cartoon version, it owes much more to later views-through-peoples’-own-biases than to historical reality. The truth is more complex.

    • Thank you Austin. Fair point. I wanted to point out that the two were not perfect, but I do appreciate this is written in quite a blasé manner. I empathise with Franklin, but appreciate she was not really embracing the ethos of sharing knowledge for good of science. As you say, this is a complex story that deserves an entire post in its own right. I’ll include a footnote linking to your post.


  2. The internet had started out as a basic research project and look at how that particular project had turned out. It’s one of the greatest inventions of all time.

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