I march for basic research

This post was also published on the Real Scientists. 
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This Saturday, the 22nd of April, scientists will take to the streets in 518 cities. This is a rare event given that scientists tend to live for their research. In their own little bubble so to speak. Something big has to happen to make scientists from all fields unite and demonstrate. More remarkably, the “March for Science” is for something. Not against. Yes, the idea emerged as a protest against a new American administration that neglects scientific findings in lieu of “alternative” facts. Against a president that does not believe in climate change or the safety of vaccinations. But seeing the speed with which the concept of a March for Science spread around the world, there must be more to it.

Populists are on the rise in a lot of countries – just think of the upcoming French elections- and they all have one thing in common. They tend to make their own truths. Big promises and statements not based on evidence but opinions. But why do people listen to these politicians? Why isn’t there a bigger outcry for a truth based on evidence? Because in most places scientists are seen as a type of elite. A group of people that stays among themselves, that is socially awkward and that most citizens have no connection to. This gets painfully visible when you look at how scientists are portrayed in the media. They are either the villains (any superhero movie) or the source of jokes (the big bang theory).

People had had enough of elites. Who knows what scientists have thought up in their ivory towers again, right? But this thinking is dangerous – politicians and citizens should trust scientists that spend a lifetime studying one particular topic. They are experts in their field and can provide evidence to base policy on and make everyone’s life better. To regain the trust of the public scientists need to spend more time engaging the public. They need to not only explain science, but also make themselves and the scientific process more transparent and relatable.

This Saturday, a lot of us scientists will hit the street and march. March for the freedom of science. March to show the world what scientists really look like. And while marching to ensure that policy is made based on scientific not alternative facts, is a great reason to join on Saturday, I personally have a different one.

I am an Immunologist, working on a specific cell type called macrophages and the question why macrophages can fulfil so many different functions in different tissues all the while stemming from the same source. This is basic research. Science done out of curiosity, not to cure a specific disease. For me that is what science, in its purest form, is all about – the pursuit of knowledge. What happened during the Big Bang? How does the brain work? What gets cells from the same origin to act differently in different environments?

Doing this kind of research is getting harder. In order to pursue a research idea, scientists have to write grants to get money funding their salary as well as any materials needed to perform the research. All grant applications- I have seen so far- include a section where scientists are asked to relate their proposed work to global health. The big question being: what is the benefit for humanity?

But not all research has imminent implications for public health which has two major outcomes. Basic research gets less funding and researchers (sometimes creatively) look for links between their basic research and diseases. While both outcomes have major implications, for me as an avid science communicator the second one is worse. Trying to link your basic research to global health is a valid look in the future – as without understanding the very basic molecular biology underlying a disease you can hardly find a cure for it. However, there shouldn’t be pressure on scientists studying a given cellular process to immediately link it to a disease condition. This only leads to bad science headlines. Findings are blown out of proportion and misinterpreted by the media as scientists are constantly pushed to relate their work to a disease. These reports can lead to false hope in patients and are part of the problem why the public is losing faith in science and scientists.

Public money should be spent on research into curing the diseases with the biggest effect on public health. The thing is –basic research will help cure diseases too. 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 scientists 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 implications for basic research may not be immediately visible. We need to acknowledge this and have respect for basic research. A great example for the sometimes unpredictable consequences of basic research is how the treatment for diabetes was made affordable. It started with diabetes unrelated research looking into how bacteria protect themselves from viruses. When a virus infects a bacterium, it introduces its own DNA to use the bacterial protein syntheses machinery to make more viruses. As a protection bacteria have developed so called restriction enzymes which can specifically cut the virus DNA and thereby limit viral reproduction. Scientists have since developed restriction enzymes into a research tool that allows us to cut specific parts of DNA- called genes. Introducing these genes into bacteria, the fast replication of bacterial cells allows the rapid production of proteins encoded by those genes. That way bacteria can be used to produce human proteins such as insulin. Making insulin the affordable diabetes treatment we all know now.

This is why, this Saturday I will march for science. I will march for the freedom to explore biology on a basic level. You never know where it can lead.

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