Justifying research, basic or otherwise

At AAAS meeting, a panel of neuroscientists weighs in on the value of curiosity-driven investigations

WASHINGTON — A panel of neuroscientists describing their basic research on how the brain works were called out on February 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Though the work ranged from preliminary studies on the neural networks of songbirds to how humans recognize their bodies, at some point during each presentation, each scientist made mention of the potential medical benefits of his or her work. At the end of all the presentations, session moderator Story Landis of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., pointed this out, calling attention to what may have been an unconscious desire to package their data in disease, and so perhaps funding-friendly, terms.

“I was struck that all the speakers justify the science that they were doing in the context of human disease, even David [Clayton], who works on archetypal model systems — songbirds — chose or felt obligated to say something about alpha-synuclein and Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “I would be interested in challenging the speakers: Do we have to justify what neuroscientists do in a context of disease, or can we make a sufficiently compelling argument for its intrinsic interest and excitement of neuroscience without having to do that?”

David Clayton, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, treaded carefully between the two answers by pointing out that while basic research is valuable, scientists can’t lose sight of what taxpayers are getting for their money: “Understanding how the brain works — that’s the grand challenge — doesn’t exclusively have human medical context,” he said. “The other part to that is that we are in an era of rich technology…. Of course, all of this technology costs a lot of money, and it’s funded typically by the taxpayers. I do think we have an obligation to think about what the priorities are in choosing where we invest strategically our own efforts…. But all things being equal, if I’m faced with two interesting problems and one of them has a medical foundation and the other is purely intellectual, if it’s all equal, I would choose the medical one.”

Sometimes, purely intellectual research can have unexpected roles in disease, said former NASA and NSF administrator Kathie Olsen, now of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in Washington, D.C. “Working at two agencies where you did discovery for discovery itself, we still had to justify why we were supporting basic fundamental research,” she said. “At NASA, one of the big things was that the algorithm used to detect what they wanted to look at has been used in mammograms to detect breast cancer. And in the reports, those have to be used, otherwise it would be impossible to get support for curiosity-driven research.”

Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm made the case for pure, knowledge-directed research with a thought experiment: “Imagine that there were no psychiatric or neurological disorders, that our brains were always healthy. It would be worthwhile studying the human brain not only for the curiosity of understanding cognitive functions, our minds, our consciousness and so on, but also, the human brain is the most advanced learning machine that the universe has created. From studying those algorithms we can learn lots of things.”

Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University agreed, drawing on his experience of pioneering a relatively new research field called optogenetics, which has been used in worms, flies and mice to turn on or off brain cells with light. “I think we have to build in support for the things that are not clearly related to disease models,” he said. “I think some of our work points to the value of completely undirected research that has no implications for health at all.”

Huda Akil of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor said, “I’ve always loved science for its own sake and understanding the brain for its own sake. Not to mention, we’re not smart enough to know what is important and how it’s going to pay off, so absolutely, we have to fight to protect undirected science for science’s sake,” she said. “But it doesn’t hurt to have an element that thinks about applications.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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