"I hate translational research. Now, before you either applaud or burst a blood vessel, you should know something else: I also hate basic research."
Do you really think that what is called basic research could exist if the public and its elected officials did not believe they would ultimately derive some benefit from it? And what would translational research have to translate if no new fundamental discoveries were made? These two feuding city-states need each other and ought to be united in common cause against the invading empire of ignorance, superstition and anti-intellectualism. But more than that: They shouldn’t be separate states in the first place.
We simply have to stop talking about research as though there were two kinds. There aren’t. When we start to use those divisive terms, we have to check ourselves. When a scientific official like Collins uses them, we have to urge him not to do so. And we have to make peace within our own community, with both sides in the current dispute recognizing not only that they need each other to survive but that our enterprise is seamless— a continuum from the most basic discovery to its most practical application. If Barnett Rosenberg hadn’t wondered what would happen to Escherichia coli cells when they were placed in an electric field, we never would have known that cisplatin, which doesn’t have a single atom of carbon in it, was a drug that could block cell growth and division. But if a number of other scientists hadn’t worked with him to follow the implications of that observation and test cisplatin on cancer models in animals, and then to fight for its eventual testing on people, testicular cancer would not be a curable disease, and Lance Armstrong probably would be dead. There is no basic research and no translational research; there is only research, in all of its frustrating, expensive, confusing magnificence. Why should we take one of the greatest monuments to the human spirit and turn it into the Balkans?
But, if you agree with me, and I hope you do, you are probably wondering, “Well how, then, can we explain to the public that you have to support the Barney Rosenbergs of the world doing things just to satisfy their own curiosity to get the cures you want? At least the way Collins and Wiley talk about research, you can piggyback support for basic research onto the flood of money coming in for translating discoveries into therapies. If you can’t talk about the two parts of the enterprise that way, how do you get support for it at all?”
The answer, I think, is that we haven’t been making the argument for the support of biomedical research as well as we could. Wiley is wrong when he says, “The business of the NIH is to fund research that improves people’s health, not fund our personal research projects.” The business of the NIH is to fund both, because they are the same thing. But how do we get that point across? Next month, I’ll tell you.
*This article originally appeared in Genome Biology (2010) 11, 107 and was reprinted with permission from BioMed Central.