Basic science is fundamental science

I continue my series on some of the misconceptions of biomedical science (previously looking at the limits of fMRI and computer simulations) with a look at what basic science is.

Some scientists devote their entire lives to understanding and describing key experimental phenomena in their fields of study: that is, they engage in “basic science”.  Physicists may want to understand how matter and forces interact and to describe the fundamental laws that govern their interactions.  Biologists and medical scientists may want to understand how cells develop to form entire organisms, how they communicate and defend themselves.

It is the answers to these questions constitutes our understanding of Nature, and the organization of these answers into theories and models is what provides the driving force behind all technological and medical advances.  In other words, “basic science” is really “fundamental science” — it is the science at the heart of human knowledge.

Applied or translational science, on the other hand, refers to our ability to take this basic knowledge and apply it to real-world problems, such as designing an airplane,  developing a vaccine, surgical techniques, or a treatment for a specific disease.

Some animal right activists have criticized the work of basic medical scientists because their work is “not curing anything”.   Instead, they suggest that our efforts should concentrate exclusively in finding cures for human ailments.  This position demonstrates an extremely poor understanding of how science operates.

First, it must be obvious that without an understanding of how something works, it is rather difficult to fix it when it fails.   This applies to your cell phone as well as to the human body.  That does not mean that we should not try at all.  In fact, many of the treatments available today have been developed by trial and error: screening drugs that appear effective and trying them out in human clinical trials.  In the case of cell phones, people have thrown them into the oven after getting it wet.

However, such trial and error (even when driven by educated guesses based on past experience or new genetic methods) is a poor second choice when compared to developing a full understanding of a process that would provide the best information about how to intervene.  Full knowledge will allow us to leapfrog from methods of “drug discovery” to a new age of “drug design”, where we will be finally able to design drugs that will interfere with the mechanisms of a disease.

Second, history has shown that the building blocks of basic science can provide unexpected answers and tools that find important applications in engineering and medicine.   An example that relates to some of our recent discussions is the study of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which deals with how magnetic nuclei respond to an externally applied electro-magnetic force.  It is clear that neither Bloch or Purcell, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on NMR in 1952, had any idea such work would one day allow physicians to image the three dimensional structure of human organs and the active areas of the brain.  A summary of how basic advancements in physics and mathematics have contributed to medical imaging can be found here.

When animal right activists protest that basic research is not saving lives they are wrong : history shows that basic science not only saves lives but it is a critical component of knowledge development.  When they suggest that we should concentrate our work exclusively on diseases they are wrong: we cannot effectively develop cures for diseases we do not understand.  When they suggest that decades of animal research studies have not contributed anything to human health they are terribly wrong: examples abound demonstrating how knowledge of animal physiology and biology has helped us understand human biology.   When animal right activists suggest that “Prof. X research has not led to any cures and never will” they are simply making a wild prediction that has no basis at all.

Basic science is fundamental science.  As such, basic medical science must also be defended from the attacks of animal rights activists.

Dario Ringach

2 responses to “Basic science is fundamental science

  1. Basic research also underpins all the work on alternatives to animal research that are currently under development. Take for example the computer models and simulations that Dario discussed a little while back that are often cited as potential replacements for animal studies, and which will play an important role in extrapolating from in vitro test data to predict effects on whole organisms in future toxicity testing programs. In order to accurately predict the function of real living systems these models require a wealth of data on what the components (e.g. genes, proteins, microRNA) of different biological systems are, how these components interact to regulate the system in particular processes, how different systems interact with each other and how processes that occur at the level of individual cells interact to produce a physiological effect in a tissue or the whole organism.

    This data is provided by many thousands of scientists around the world who are working with cells and tissue samples in vitro, in model organisms ranging from yeast to mice, with clinical data from humans, and in many cases all three. Little of this work ever comes to the attention of the public, it rarely makes the newspaper headlines or gets cited as the discovery that led to medical breakthrough X, but it is no less important for all that.

  2. Excellent post Dario. This is often a tough concept to explain and it’s one that the animal rights groups choose not to grasp.