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. Continue reading “Putting numbers on the impact of basic research”

John Baez does network theory

I love John Baez’s blog that was a blog before we called things blogs, This Week’s Finds. (He also writes the Azimuth blog, linked in our blogroll below. And I tip my hat to my father-in-law, who first introduced me to Baez’s blog.)

Baez is now writing on network theory. Baez typically focuses on math and physics, but this series is great for biologists:

I wish there were a branch of mathematics—in my dreams I call it green mathematics—that would interact with biology and ecology just as fruitfully as traditional mathematics interacts with physics. If the 20th century was the century of physics, while the 21st is the century of biology, shouldn’t mathematics change too? As we struggle to understand and improve humanity’s interaction with the biosphere, shouldn’t mathematicians have some role to play?

And while you’re over there, check out his section on how to learn math and physics, and his advice to young scientists.