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”

The Challenges of Interdisciplinary Research for LEGO Researchers

Doing the things that a particle can…

Particle Clicker is a simple and addictive click-based game developed by undergrads at CERN Webfest. You are cast as the head of a particle accelerator lab striving to make breakthroughs in physics, without all the grant writing and begging governments for money.

Screenshot 2014-08-15 21.01.52

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing – I particularly enjoyed the smashed particle paths when you click on the detector, it is full of information about the physics phenomena you are investigating and humor about the research process.

In its current iteration, the gameplay can get repetitive, but it is well worth at least one play through, if only to read all the information boxes. Also, once you have accumulated enough competent staff, you can simply sit back and let the data accumulate while you enjoy the easy life of a high-profile PI1.

1. According to reports, this is only an easy life by the standards of graduate students and post-docs with no hopes of advancement on their traditional career path.

SOURCE: Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.

Bang for Our Buck in Research

In his weekly column at Pacific Standard, our Mike White discusses the importance of basic science for productive science:

…Congress wants to know: Are we getting the most out of our research dollars?…the National Academy of Sciences…came back with its answer…If you care about the economic returns of research, don’t focus too much on the economic returns of research. Focus instead on cultivating a world-class basic research community, and the economic returns will come.
Mike White

Doing Science on the “Fiscal Cliff”

Sequestration. It’s a dirty word for anyone whose job or paycheck relies on Federal funding. Scientists are particularly vulnerable because research plans tend to extend beyond just a few months. Often federal grant money is spent early in the funding period and a sudden budget cut could mean personnel cuts. The Budget Control Act of 2011  hoped to reduce the deficit by $1.2-$1.5 trillion dollars over the next ten years. As an insurance policy, the act included sequestration; meaning, should the committee fail to make a plan, a drastic, across the board cut would be enacted January 1, 2013.

So far, the committee has been unsuccessful in devising a plan to reduce the deficit. After the November election, Congress has been in a flurry trying to formulate a plan both parties support and get it approved in time. Continue reading “Doing Science on the “Fiscal Cliff””