Back to basic
I was recently doing some much belated spring cleaning and came across an ancient tome on one of my bookshelves. It was a nondescript book, filled with strange words and incantations…words that no longer held meaning for me. Needless to say, I was horrified when I realized that I was the author. It was my Master's thesis.
As I flipped through the pages, however, I came to an even more horrifying realization: If I was trying to do this work now, I would likely never get funding. You see, I worked in the exciting field of bacteriophage lambda biology, studying the ins-and-outs, if you will, of how the virus packages its DNA during replication. While this might have been hot stuff when in vitro lambda packaging was the only way to deal with large DNA fragments, it would likely be lost in today's funding environment where the most important questions is: What are the opportunities for commercial spin-off?
All this to say that in the present-day crush to use commercialization to rationalize academic and government research, I worry about what fascinating discoveries we might be missing. (Disclosure: My thesis has perhaps one interesting observation, but nothing I would call fascinating.)
In the late 1950s and early '60s, Dr. Werner Arber and colleagues noted that certain strains of bacteriophage lambda (there it is again) were restricted to growth on specific strains of E. coli, but the virus could be modified to allow growth on other bacteria. As they elucidated this process of restriction/modification, I am confident that there were few conversations about the commercial prospects of the project and in applying for research grants, they were unlikely to be asked questions about how quickly they could generate spin-off companies.
The research progressed, however, and unexpectedly became the cornerstone of the genomics revolution several decades later: the identification and application of restriction endonucleases to isolate and transfer DNA sequences. Along with Drs. Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith, Arber won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.
I am in favor of the commercialization of new technologies, even within the academic sphere; if nothing else, it is a great way for academic centers to generate revenue through tech transfer and IP licensing. I am concerned, however, that the pendulum has yet again swung too far and that what was once a nice-to-have option on a funding application (i.e., commercialization potential) has become a must-have mandate. And to make matters worse, even when you can get funding, there is the very real danger of it being yanked in subsequent years if you don't seem to be making your spin-off targets.
Perhaps I'm being naïve (which is usually a sign that I am), but I didn't think that commercialization was the purpose of basic science, but rather a perquisite. Basic science, in my eyes, exists to open new areas of exploration and to fill in the gaps of our fundamental understanding of the universe—for the purposes of DDN's audience, the biomolecular universe. Basic science should not be about revenue generation.
Have we become so arrogant in our knowledge of the biomolecular world that we don't believe there are any gaps? That we have all the tools and know-how we need to generate any outcome? Even within the commercial sphere, the incredibly high incidence of failure—it takes 100,000 compounds to find one drug—would seem to indicate the answer should be no.
This is nothing of which we need be ashamed, however, as we've only really had the appropriate tools for the last 50 years or so—tools, I might remind you, that were developed under the auspices of basic science.