If the only kind of research we do is based on what we already know, we are looking where we already have light. If it turns out that’s where the keys are, fine. But we usually aren’t sure where the keys are, so we also need to go looking into the darkness. “Basic research” is the light that shines in that dark.
"The greatest reassurance we can offer people with life-threatening or crippling illnesses is that we are leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find them a treatment."
Now, I realize that basing support for all forms of research on a joke may not be the most politically astute of ideas— although I bet it would be a pretty good tactic if you have to explain biomedical research to a gathering of laypeople. Besides, in this age of 10-second sound bites, we need something more immediately memorable and digestible. But, the metaphor of hunting for what is lost provides the answer.
The greatest reassurance we can offer people with life-threatening or crippling illnesses is that we are leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find them a treatment. If we only do research that applies discoveries we already have made, we are only looking under stones that have already been turned. That we must do, but if it’s all we do, it’s not enough. We also need to turn over new stones, because we have no idea where the answers lie. I think anyone can understand that and appreciate it. This metaphor makes clear the value, and continuity, of all forms of scientific research. And it allows us to discard the “basic” and “translational” dichotomy once and for all.
When I go onto the NIH Web site, which includes the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (that’s “Basic Sciences,” in fact), I notice that this gigantic human endeavor has no motto. (It says “The Nation’s Medical Research Agency” as a subtitle, but any marketing expert would turn his or her nose up at such a dull and unmemorable phrase.) I think it needs one. It should be something that any layperson can immediately grasp, something that speaks to the dedication, commitment, passion and effort of biomedical scientists to do everything in our power to better their lives. It should be not just NIH’s motto, but our motto as well. What could be better than “No Stone Unturned.”
1. Gapstur, S. M., and Thun, M. J. (2010) Progress in the War on Cancer. JAMA 303, 1084–1085.
2. Elkin, E. B., and Bach, P. B. (2010) Cancer’s Next Frontier: Addressing High and Increasing Costs. JAMA 303, 1086–1087.
3. Niederhuber, J. E. (2010) Translating Discovery to Patient Care. JAMA 303, 1088–1089.
*This article originally appeared in Genome Biology (2010) 11, 112 and was reprinted with permission from BioMed Central.