Lessons from a grant writing course or why basic science is important!

To view this post in German click here/ Für die deutsche Version hier klicken:

Remember my post about life as a scientist and how scientists have to secure their own funding to be able to do research? It seems my time has come – my contract runs out in early 2016 and if I want to continue my work I need to get money. So I started writing a grant proposal. One positive thing about working at the DKFZ (the German cancer research centre) is that they offer a lot of help with grants. So two weeks ago I went to a grant-writing course.

During the two-day workshop we took a look at how grants are reviewed, because knowing what reviewers look for makes it easier to structure your own proposal. One thing that kept coming up was that we need to explain why our research is worth the money. Why this work and not one of the other research projects? Money is limited and only the most important and relevant questions can be funded.

But what makes a research question interesting and relevant?

In our workshop the instructor had a clear answer to that – public health implications. This means every grant should start with the impact of the disease you study on society, like one in three people will develop cancer in their life time (statistic by cancer research UK) and then state how your research will improve the patient’s quality of life or even cure the disease.

This makes total sense, right? Research on diseases with such a massive impact on society is worth doing and should be funded – it’s in the best interest for the public. But wait, does this not imply that research on rare disease like Huntington’s disease (1 in 10 000 people suffer from this disease) is less deserving of funding? And what about so-called basic research, which does not directly relate to any disease but looks at the basic mechanisms of life?

Thinking some more about this I remembered this YouTube video. I think it’s wonderful in explaining why basic research is worth funding and how basic research does not mean that this type of work will never yield in improvements for public health. So please watch it!

Why basic research is important

Basic research aims to add information to our understanding of the world, by trying to analyse mechanisms or pathways within cells or interactions between cells. How can we expect to just think of a cure for certain diseases if we (1) do not understand the biology behind the disease or (2) do not have the technology to produce a cure yet? The video shows an example for the second problem; it shows how diabetes unrelated research gave us the technology to produce human proteins in bacteria allowing the production of insulin, which is now used to treat patients. And I am going to give you an example for the first problem based on my current research – which is a basic science topic.

Within the immune system basic research tries to understand how the immune system works. I do basic research on an immune cell called macrophage. Macrophages can be found in all tissues in the body. The cells play an important role in the immune response, but also help keep tissues healthy. In the bone for example, macrophages are called osteoclasts and are crucial for bone remodelling, their miss-functioning can lead to osteoporosis – thin bones! In the gut macrophages constantly servile the lumen of the gut to spot bacteria that can cause disease. Miss-function of these cells can cause Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). As of now it is not really known how macrophages, which share a common origin, develop their tissue specific functions. So how can it be that the same cell enters the skin, lung, gut or bone and develops into very different yet also similar cells? That is what I would like to find out. It is not related to any disease directly, but how would we ever be able to modulate macrophages in diseases situations (such as osteoporosis or IBD) if we do not understand what drives macrophages into their tissue specific roles?

And that’s why basic research needs to be funded too. The same holds true for funding of rare diseases. What tells us that the cause or cure for one rare disease cannot inform the treatment of a seemingly unrelated disease?

Any questions about basic research? Let us know.

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