Se­niors de­serve fundrais­ing at­ten­tion

Vancouver Sun - - WEEKEND REVIEW -

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.


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