One of the main questions I get about doing biological research is: so what do you actually do? If my answer isn’t “I’m trying to cure Parkinson’s/cancer/some other disease!” I tend to get one of two responses.
1. Why aren’t you trying to cure (insert disease)?
2. (blank stare)
I don’t blame people for not understanding why I do what I do. Considering billions of taxpayer money is spent every year on basic research I can see why the general public wants to see tangible results in the form of new drugs and therapies that can help people with debilitating, and often lethal, diseases. This is why I do everything I can to inform anyone who is willing to listen about the joys and benefits of basic research.
I’m going to gloss over a lot of details, but you have essentially two kinds of research: applied and basic. Applied research is a program where a finding (lets say a new class of antibiotic) is used to find a direct application that can benefit people. In the antibiotic instance it would involve first using the new antibiotic on cultured bacteria alongside standard treatments. Then you move on to animal models and, if it all works out, to clinical studies in humans.
Basic research is, well, for lack of a better term, more basic. I know you can’t define something by using the very word you are defining, so let me expound on this a little bit. All basic research is goal oriented in a sense, but the overall goal is much more open ended than that of applied research. We basic researchers try to figure stuff out just for the sake of figuring it out. Yes, it may have a practical application down the road that we’re kind of, slightly, interested in but the main goal is to expand humanity’s knowledge base so that even more discoveries can be made. The key to basic research that everyone should understand is this: no one knows what piece of knowledge is going to lead to useful, practical applications. Just because we’re scientists doesn’t mean we can see the future. We make educated guesses based on what we currently know to try and narrow down future possibilities (and we’ve become quite good at that), but we’re far from perfect.
One of the best examples I have ever seen of a basic research finding having profound real-world implications is the discovery of a simple little protein called ubiquitin. I heard the story of it’s discovery when I attended a lecture by Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover (yes, I had to mention that) and it was essentially this: scientists didn’t know anything about the possible breakdown of proteins in the body at the time, so Aaron and a few others decided to look into it. There were plenty of theories about what was happening to these proteins, but no one had any solid answers. Turns out, the protein ubiquitin is critical to the specified destruction of proteins, and when this system gets fucked up, you get fucked up. However, now that we know what the system does and (mostly) how it works we can now look for drugs to target particular aspects of this system to cure diseases! Exciting, I know! But, if the basic research hadn’t been done we would instead be blindly looking for drugs, and even if one were found we wouldn’t understand how it works or interacts with other parts of a system.
These discoveries happen all the time. Occasionally they directly help humanity, but I would argue that in all instances they, at the very least, indirectly help.