In June, we shared some thoughts with you on the value of basic research, and in July we wrote about the amazing resources in our National Laboratories that serve as engines of discovery to make such research possible. We invited you to “share your favorite examples of basic research that led to unexpected insights or game changing applications on social media using #BasicResearch,” and your responses have been passionate, thoughtful, and gratifying. Hundreds of you told us (and each other!) about fundamental, curiosity-driven research that has inspired you, and that has resulted in major advances in fields ranging from brain research to biofuels, from catalysts to photosynthesis. We heard from people across the country, representing at least 15 states, and from members of academia, industry, government laboratories, and professional societies. Some examples you noted:
From Poison to Prescriptions
One fascinating case was the study of Gila monster venom. A physician and researcher working for the Veterans Administration discovered in 1992 that the venom contained a previously unknown compound that can stimulate insulin production in the pancreas when glucose levels are high – ideal for maintaining a steady blood sugar level and thus helping to control diabetes. A new drug based on that compound was developed, a drug that has been prescribed for millions of diabetics.
Controlling Light with Photonic Crystals
The idea that light of a specific wavelength can be blocked by appropriately tuning the spacings within a structure to cause destructive interference has been around for over a hundred years. The concept can be used, for example, to apply coatings to sunglasses to block UV rays. Much more recently (less than thirty years ago), researchers theorized that this principle could be extended into two and three dimensions. While researchers are continuing to design and develop novel structures to achieve such control, the approach has already led to new devices for repelling, trapping, and steering light. These “photonic crystals” have found applications in technologies ranging from heat
mirrors to optical integrated circuits to solar cells to surgical lasers. Previously unrecognized examples of photonic crystals responsible for color have now also been observed in the natural world, including in butterflies, peacocks, and chameleons.
Pond Scum Contributes to Neuroscience Research
Single-celled algae in standing water sometimes collect to form an unattractive film referred to as “pond scum.” The response of these algae to light in order to optimize photosynthesis has, however, revealed the critical role of a light-sensitive protein. This work, originally motivated by a desire to understand how microorganisms interact with the world, led to the use of such proteins to control target neurons in laboratory settings, enabling precise experiments on brain function and disorders. Large-scale research efforts like the President’s BRAIN Initiative depend on this sort of basic research in neuroscience, nanotechnology, and other areas.
These are just a few of the many fascinating stories that you relayed about the impacts of basic research. While basic research has been shown time and again to be an effective investment, its outcomes are unpredictable, long-term, and can’t always be captured by those who invest in it. Indeed, the “Golden Goose Awards” were developed precisely to recognize the (sometimes unlikely) significance of seemingly unimportant research, such as the work on Gila monster venom described above.
The Federal government recognizes the critical importance of basic research, and maintains a primary role in supporting it. Every year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget issue guidance on multi-agency science and technology priorities to Federal agencies on the formulation of their future budgets. While acknowledging that these agencies have broad obligations that cannot be met by basic research alone, the latest such guidance notes the critical importance of basic research:
“Federal government funding for research and development (R&D) is essential to address societal needs in areas in which the private sector does not have sufficient economic incentive to make the required investments. Key among these is basic research – the fundamental, curiosity-driven inquiry that is a hallmark of the American research enterprise and a powerful driver of new technology.”
We’ve enjoyed hearing your stories of exciting outcomes that further underscore the value of basic research, and hope you’ll continue to spread the word about how the freedom to pursue interesting directions that may not have immediate applications can sometimes lead to crucial and wholly unexpected advances. In the months to come, we’ll be sharing further thoughts with you on the nature of basic research, the policies and programs that support and sustain it, and the tools and practices that enable us to follow our curiosity and see where it takes us.
Altaf H. (Tof) Carim is Assistant Director for Research Infrastructure at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.