Professor Maria Elena Torres-Padilla is Director of the Institute of Epigenetics and Stem Cells at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, where she leads a team that is decoding the factors necessary for successful embryo implantation following fertilization. She believes policy makers, educators and society at large need to have a more fundamental understanding of the way science works – and the way it should be funded. Here she explains why and how this can be achieved.
Q: Why is it important for society to understand the scientific process and, in particular, the role of basic science?
A: Scientific research requires considerable investment of time and money and it is important that society is engaged and holds scientists to account for using this money responsibly. For this to be effective for both science and society, however, it is important that society understands the scientific process. Often, when society thinks about science they are looking for results, they want deliverables, they want drugs to cure diseases. This is understandable and scientists also value these outcomes. What’s important to remember, however, is that we can achieve these translational results because we are fortunate to live at a time in which we can benefit from what scientists have discovered over the last 100 and 200 years. To put it simply, we can generate drugs now because we know what to target - and this has come about through basic research, basic science.
In my field, basic science is devoted to understanding the fundamental mechanisms of life; but basic science is just as integral to the humanities or the study of space and so on. It can be viewed as the foundations on which we build the translational elements of research. If the foundations are firmly set, the building on top will stand strong.
If we invest in generating more of this kind of knowledge, gain a deeper understanding of more disease mechanisms then, in the future, we’ll be able to identify more targets for the development of new disease treatments and, ultimately, cures. Appreciation of this complete scientific process shows that basic and applied research – or translational research – need to work hand in hand to create benefits.
Another reason that basic research is important is more related to drug discovery.
You can have a drug to treat cancer, or diabetes, but often there is the problem of secondary effects, and these are common mostly because we haven’t quite figured out how the whole mechanism of disease and its progression and symptoms actually work. The only way to understand this is through basic research, and this is a very long-term and continuing process.
Q: The problem, then, is one of funding for basic research, which produces less immediate results?
Yes. But it comes down to how we define results.
In our current situation, when we talk about results, it is interpreted as making money; and no, basic research does not make money immediately.
Ultimately, when there’s a major finding, typically by the work of many, many people over at least 100 years or so, that allows others to say, “this is interesting”, the aim is to do something translational with that finding. It is important to appreciate, therefore, that basic and applied research are not completely independent; there has to be room for doing something in between, to allow people to talk to each other.
Within science itself this is not a problem – difference is not a barrier, and collaboration is an everyday endeavour in science, technically and conceptually. We don’t even look at what nationality others are because we just talk the same language, which is that of science.
And this is a profound thing: a global community of people working together without barriers because we communicate and share common values. This is a fantastic thing, and it is very special in science.
Q: So, where does funding have to come from?
Financing mostly has to come from governments and, in some countries, like the UK, through charities. The problem is that when funding is driven by politicians, who operate within a four or five-year election cycle, there is no way they can point to a result within this timeframe. In addition, there is now more and more pressure in Europe and the US and some countries in Asia to fund research that has translational impact. Of course, it’s good to promote this kind of research, but basic research must continue too, to ensure progress in the much longer-term.
Q: What steps do you believe to be important to bring about change?
First, we need the personal engagement of scientists. This applies especially to people like me who are truly on the basic research side. We need to speak about facts, not opinions, so that people are aware of this challenge. We need to help scientists feel a part of the society in which they work, engaging with the public and feeling that their voice is heard.
Second, in the medium and long term, is education. We need to educate the public to be aware of what basic research can bring to society, and it is actually a really simple concept. We must involve the research and higher education institutions, as well as primary and secondary schools to expose the younger generation early on to the process of science. Some countries already have successful initiatives in place aimed at achieving this: the UK tends to do well, for example, from my experience of talking to children there. Role models that the public know can help, but, really, we need a more profound process within education at all levels.
Third, we need scientists to have an active presence within government and an appreciation of science among policymakers and on consulting bodies. Scientists know first-hand the importance of basic research and can advise those in power of this importance. Establishing an open dialogue between officials and scientists will ensure long-term measures are in place, free from individual political gain, and ensuring a positive impact on society now and in the future. Reducing the concern among scientists for funding will enable them to focus their energy and creativity on what they do best, their research.
I travelled to Brussels recently with four or five other scientists and we visited a senior EU official to make these points. And we were told, “look, Europe can’t give you any money. Why don’t you go back to your countries and you raise money from private people, then come back and maybe we can help.”
On the one hand, I believe this could be seen as a good opportunity to engage with the private sector and establish long-term partnerships which can be highly beneficial to both parties. On the other hand, however, my reaction was, we are scientists and we are good at what we are doing, I hope. And that is doing research. I shouldn’t have to be raising money myself! This was a bit like a ‘cold shower’ as we say in french, and shows the general tendency of the governments not to fund basic research. I therefore believe it is important that we should be proactive in the government and among policymakers but also to reach out to the private sector and engage interest from the society at large. It’s vital however that they do not forget their research. If we neglect that, then our purpose is not served.