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One day, the research that my students and I are doing at the University of Victoria on a protein expressed in the brain could provide vital insights into the mysteries of conditions like autism and schizophrenia.
If and when it does, chalk another one up for fundamental science, the curiositydriven form of science that virtually every major scientific breakthrough is built on.
Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of science most under threat in Canada right now, losing ground year after year to research driven by funders’ priorities rather than researchers’ curiosity. It’s an issue of grave concern for those of us who know just how important it is to support research that starts out not knowing what it’s looking for.
That we ended up researching the role of the protein Pannexin 1 in neuro-development didn’t exactly come about by accident, but there was a certain amount of serendipity to how it happened.
For me, it started with top-notch fundamental science training in Canada and France, which exposed me to key knowledge gaps identified by other basic scientists. Previous research had confirmed Pannexin 1 was highly expressed in the brain around the time of birth, when neurons are developing — a convincing clue to follow up on.
After my students and I discovered the role of Pannexin 1 in neuronal development, others identified a role in cognitive development and autism. Time will tell where this new knowledge takes us.
There are many terms for the serendipitous approach to research that we’re talking about here: basic science, fundamental science, independent science, investigator-led. But by any name, we know the funding for it in Canada has been diminishing for almost two decades. Canadian researchers welcomed last week’s announcement of $515 million in federal discovery grants, but that won’t rectify a problem years in the making.
The impact is significant. The Global Young Academy report, released this summer, found the number of Canadian researchers pursuing fundamental science exclusively has fallen to two per cent from 24 per cent a decade ago. The 2017 report from the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science said funding for independent research in Canada has fallen to 58 per cent of total funding, compared to 70 per cent in 2000.
Of course, applied research is essential as well. Sticking with the Pannexin 1 example, downstream priority-driven research focused specifically on the protein’s role in neuro-developmental disorders will be an essential step for determining real-world applications.
But how would we even know to establish that priority if not for fundamental science first making the case for further exploration?
No researcher knows at the outset which discovery might lead to a medical breakthrough, a new drug or treatment, an entirely different approach. History has taught us that setting out to generate a specific outcome — a cure for X, Y or Z disorders — can even stifle discovery because it biases researchers to narrow the scope of their study to external priorities before identifying and understanding all of the pieces of puzzle.
That’s why we need research that lets scientists follow their noses. Penicillin might never have been discovered had it not been for the curiosity of a Scottish biologist who returned to his lab after a holiday and got to wondering about the strange fungus that killed off the staphylococci bacteria he had been culturing.
Fundamental science is the exploration of unknown territory. Without it, we can only explore what we already know. Fundamental science also opens the door to discovering links between diseases and connections in cellular function that might, say, let us take research about the pancreas and apply it to the brain, or vice versa.
Basic science is slow. It requires extensive understanding of existing knowledge and experimental tools acquired over many years, and a creative mind connecting the dots between phenomena to develop a potential explanation for how something works.
Such discoveries are essential to priority-driven research as well. Applied science is built on a foundation of fundamental science. We need them both, and need to ensure that our federal government and other research funders understand that.
The majority of scientific discoveries that had a significant impact on human health and development arose serendipitously from fundamental, curiosity-driven research. Here’s to surprises, and the funding to ensure they keep coming.
Leigh Anne Swayne is an associate professor in cellular neurobiology in the division of medical sciences at the University of Victoria, and recipient of a 2017 discovery grant from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Basic science is slow. It requires extensive understanding of existing knowledge and experimental tools acquired over many years, and a creative mind connecting the dots between phenomena to develop a potential explanation for how something works. Leigh Anne Swayne
A recent report found fundamental science is falling out of favour in Canadian research.