Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (who, I might add, has got off to an excellent start), made a somewhat provocative remark after assuming his new position last year. Interviewed for The New York Times in October (Oct. 5, 2009), Collins is quoted as saying, “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences, we’re the National Institutes of Health.” This remark came in the context of Collins’ declared wish to encourage academic researchers to consider commercializing their ideas or pursuing drug development in universities, given the increasingly barren state of pharmaceutical company labs.
This reminded me of an article I read some time ago, with which I largely agreed, but which made me hopping mad at the same time. It was “Big Biology is Here to Stay” by Steven Wiley, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory fellow and director of PNNL’s Biomolecular Systems Initiative, and appeared in The Scientist (subscription required to view). Subtitled “Why R01-funded Biologists Should Throw Their Support behind Large-scale Science Projects,” the premise of the article was that “The business of the National Institutes of Health is to fund research that improves people’s health, not fund our personal research projects.” In the article, Wiley confesses that he originally thought the Human Genome Project would be a waste of money but now thinks “we were all wrong.” He goes on to say that “Starting new, large-scale research projects was a clear demonstration that NIH was willing to try new approaches to accelerate biomedical research… trying to shift funds away from these large projects will ensure that they do fail, and will be self-defeating in the long run. We’d better hope these projects are successful, and we should do all we can to help them.”
Now, given my well-known views on the ascendancy of big science over little science and the increasing tendency to direct research from the top down by bureaucratically initiated programs, you may be wondering why I say that I largely agree with Wiley’s sentiments. The reason is that neither Wiley’s column nor Collins’ remark really was about big science in the sense that I mean it. I dislike large-scale, top-down programs; they are referring to projects aimed at translating the findings of biomedical research into therapies for human disease. Many of the big science projects that I regard as not worth continuing, like the structural genomics initiative, aim to advance fundamental knowledge rather than produce direct health benefits, and many of the others, like the effort to associate common genomic polymorphisms with risk for disease, are simply not likely to produce significant health benefits no matter their intentions.
I have no problem with good science, whether it’s large or small, although, I do believe we always must have both sizes and that research driven by the curiosity of the individual investigator should be the predominant kind we support. I agreed with Wiley (and Collins), because they were, in fact, making a case for good science aimed directly at finding cures versus science aimed at expanding our basic knowledge of biology— in other words, translational research versus basic research. And, that is also precisely why the Wiley article (and the Collins remark) made me angry. It wasn’t what they said. It was the way they chose to talk about it.
I hate translational research. Now, before you either applaud or burst a blood vessel, you should know something else: I also hate basic research. Or, to be precise, I hate the terms “translational research” and “basic research.” If there’s a theme, besides the transformative nature of the age of genomics, that runs through the columns I’ve written for the past 10 years, it’s that the words we use to describe something are incredibly important and often get us into all kinds of trouble. We should never have used “therapeutic cloning” to describe somatic cell nuclear transfer; having the word “cloning” in there allowed religious fundamentalists to define the terms of the debate about embryonic stem cells. We should not have let the term “chemical” become a pejorative. “Global warming” is a poor phrase to rouse people to change their ways of life— “climate crisis” might have been much better (and also would have had the virtue of being alliterative). But, of all the poorly chosen words in recent scientific history, few are as bad as “translational research” and “basic research.”
How did we allow this purely artificial distinction to dominate our discussion of funding priorities? It’s everything we should avoid. It sets up a dichotomy that is bound to confuse the public; it divides us into two warring camps, competing for attention and resources; and it implies, falsely, that there may be a difference in value in the kind of work that we do based on its intent.
We should make this our mantra as life scientists: There is no such thing as basic research and no such thing as translational research. There is only research. Period. If we must put an adjective in front of it, then let’s use “biomedical.” But we simply have to stop talking about our science as though there were different versions of it, with different objectives and different implicit worth.