The ‘Ice Road Truckers of science’ and why we need them

It’s not easy making the life of a scientist look exciting. Thinking is incredibly boring to watch, which is probably why “Petri Dish Warriors” would never reach the prime-time success of “Ice Road Truckers.

Basic science may not make a great meme, but curiosity-driven research helps us understand how nature works at the most fundamental level. This allows us to invent things that no one else has thought of, leading to ideas that over time will create jobs, save lives and drive the economy. If the United States were to lose our advantage in basic discoveries, we would risk undermining the strength of our economy and our global leadership.

After a three-day stalemate, we face yet again a short-term spending bill that will cast great uncertainty over the 2018 budget. As an economist and a scientist, we both are alarmed that federal funding for research and development has dropped from almost 10 percent of the budget in 1968 to roughly 3 percent in 2015. Even though Congress appears willing to increase funding for medical research, we are worried about the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and others, because all research is interconnected. None of the breathtaking innovations in gene sequencing, for example, would have been possible without engineering advances.

For the first time in our lifetimes, we face a strong anti-science presence in national policy debates. Public resources are also scarcer, in part because of the needs of an aging population. And we’re in a populist moment filled with an enormous amount of suspicion toward what are perceived to be elite institutions of society, including universities.

Research often is hard to explain to those not directly exposed to it. It’s self-driven, has a lot of failures, takes long periods of time and has a certain randomness to it. People want to know what will happen if they fund a specific line of research, and the honest answer is that we don’t know.

Discovery isn’t linear, and the idea that only goal-oriented research leads to products has been disproven time and again. Chemotherapy grew from the discovery that individuals who’d been poisoned by mustard gas showed a decrease in white blood cells. Microwave ovens were created after a scientist noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted when he was near a microwave radiation source.

Here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, curiosity-driven research led Professor Howard Temin to ask why viruses cause cancer in chickens. He found an enzyme that led to the creation of recombinant DNA, a discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize in 1975 and opened up a treasure trove of ways to help people, including gene therapy, anti-cancer drugs and antibodies used for arthritis and other conditions. None of this was foreseen at the time of his discovery.

It’s also hard to quantify the contribution of any one basic research finding to a specific technology. All the technology that has transformed everyday life — smartphones, tablets, GPS systems — relies on fundamental science research that was done decades ago. But even if we can’t draw a direct line from today’s projects to tomorrow’s innovations, the risk of not funding basic science strikes at the core of our nation’s identity and prosperity.

Research funding faces an uphill battle because it’s not easy to invest in something you can’t see or hold in your hands. But that’s exactly what we must do if we are to find cures for diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s.

American science has dominated the world for the past 50 to 60 years because the U.S. government committed to funding basic research at a higher level than most countries.

As other countries are catching up, and even surpassing us in research investments, we worry about the next 20 to 40 years. Global companies need to be constantly innovating. As long as American universities are at the center of research, whether in materials, 3D printing, DNA or various forms of stem cell work, our firms will be globally competitive. If our universities fall behind, the technologies available will not be at the cutting edge, and companies will relocate to countries whose universities replace ours as world leaders. Whether you work in medicine, manufacturing or retail, you have to be close to the newest knowledge.

An environment that encourages curiosity-driven research is going to result in more discoveries. If our policy choices sacrifice the opportunity to make those discoveries, then we will become one of the nations that must figure out how to make someone else’s inventions cheaper, instead of leading the market by capitalizing on new knowledge. If this happens, we lose control; we no longer call the shots on economic opportunity.

Government money applied to things that we as a society think are important — from space travel to the internet — produces major results in every area, in the medical, mechanical, electric, and even retail space.

To stay competitive in this global economy, we must value and support basic research. And that means allowing the “Ice Road Truckers of science” to pursue their curiosity in order to drive discovery.

Rebecca Blank is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Brad Schwartz is CEO of the biomedical Morgridge Institute for Research in Madison. Originally published in The Hill.

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