Putting numbers on the impact of basic research

Over at Pacific Standard, I tackle the question, How much does basic research really matter?

The idea that basic research is the indispensable foundation for technological and medical progress is widely accepted by scientists. It’s the core rationale for the major government investment in basic research made in the U.S and around the world.

But what’s the evidence for it? We can always come up with cherry-picked examples of a basic discovery that led to some revolutionary technology — general relativity and GPS, restriction enzymes and synthetic insulin, quantum mechanics and electronics, the double helix and genetic medicine, etc. Coming up with examples is easy. Quantifying the impact of basic research is hard.

A recent paper in Cell describes one way to do this. It’s not perfect, but the concept is surprisingly simple. Pick some new technology or therapy — the authors picked the new cystic fibrosis drug Ivacaftor — and follow the trail of citations to build a network of papers, researchers, and institutions that made the drug possible. Of course this network will include a lot of citations to studies that weren’t particularly critical. The trick here is sorting the wheat from the chaff: picking out the ‘network hubs’, the researchers and institutions that contributed consistently to the research that led to the drug.

The result may be not surprising to those of us working in science, but it’s still remarkable to see: dozens of researchers publishing hundreds of papers over several decades laid the essential scientific foundation for Ivacaftor.

The rationale for a federal investment in basic research was succinctly summed up at the very beginning of our modern era of federally funded research by Vannevar Bush, who was the chief U.S. science official during World War II:

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.

Bush was applying the lessons learned during World War II, when scientific capital accumulated over decades was spent to develop critical military technology and weaponry, most notably radar and most infamously the atomic bomb. (And I’ll take this opportunity to plug the best book ever on this story of building and spending scientific capital, Richard Rhodes’ maginificent The Making of the Atomic Bomb.)

Bush also recognized that it’s hard to tally up basic research’s successes:

One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance… Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy.

Looking at citation networks is one way to identify, at least with hindsight, those “important and highly useful discoveries” in basic research.

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