The false distinction between basic and applied science

During an interview years ago, Herb Abelson, the leukemia researcher after whom the abl gene is named and whose work with viruses in mice helped unravel how a chromosomal mutation leads to chronic myelogenous leukemia, said to me, “No good science is ever wasted.”

That phrase stuck with me because I think it is very true when it comes to drug development. Even when the science has no clear finished product in mind, it’s still worthwhile. I suspect that no readers of this blog, or of PLoS in general, would question that. But there is a tussle between basic and applied science that needs to be bopped on the head from time to time so it can return to its hole underground. Should there even be terminology separating the two?

You might be tired of reading about the new protease inhibitors for hepatitis C virus. Perhaps its moment in the news cycle sun has passed. But let’s not be subject to such fleeting trends, for there is yet more to glean from the story of how these drugs came to be.

For example, did you know that Charlie Rice, whose work was integral to solving the structure of the hepatitis C virus, traces his involvement back to the 1980s research he and others were doing on the genome structure of the yellow fever virus? That arthropod-borne virus, a member of the flavivirus family, has a particularly harsh strain that causes severe acute hepatitis. Rice had also been studying how viral RNA is replicated and translated, and how viral proteins are made. In fact, he had begun researching viruses as a grad student at Caltech. And if you ask him why he was so captivated by viruses, here is what he will say: “Random chance. I can get interested in pretty much anything, I guess.” He has proof to back up that assertion. His primary interest when heading off to grad school was developmental biology, and his fate was sealed only by the size of the program. “There was a really good developmental biology lab at Caltech, but it didn’t have space, so I got plopped in a virology lab,” Rice recalled. “And that was that.”

Fast forward 30 years later, and Rice’s work on yellow viruses, which got him recruited to work on the hepatitis C virus, has led to two drugs that offer a vast improvement over the previously available medications for HCV.

Considering that trajectory, is there a real distinction between basic and applied science? The saying “bench to bedside” is often used to describe the need to move useful findings out of the laboratory and into patient care, to convert a discovery into a product. But what that phrase sometimes misses is how far back in time, how extensive, and how often unpredictable that journey can be. In our results-oriented time, it’s important to remember that, as Abelson so wisely put it, no good science is ever wasted.

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3 Responses to The false distinction between basic and applied science

  1. David says:

    I agree heartily! I was working on a project which was nominally split into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ but the work was almost indistinguishable on a day to day basis. Not only that, but the applied side could be traced back to basic experiments as early as the 30′s, which were then applied through the 60′s-80′s in fuel cell work. In the late 80′s spinoff basic work from the fuel cell research led to the precursors of our current research.

    Throughout the process, the research stream might have been called more basic or applied, but it’s simply not a helpful distinction at any point.

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks for this. I love these stories, where you can trace the history of something back in time, to some avenue of research that could never have been suspected of leading where it led to. We fund curiosity and inquiry, we don’t fund results. -Jessica

  3. Pia says:

    There is a strong distinction between basic and applied science (in my mind), and you even highlight it in your post–applied research is moving scientific findings immediately to the “bedside” or real-world application within a time frame of a few years or less. The basic research is all the work that was done five, ten, even thirty years earlier that the applied research stands on. With Charlie Rice’s work, the work he did in the 80s laid the foundation for today’s therapeutics, but back then he probably did not know that he was working on a protease inhibitor (or maybe he did, but I doubt he would have been able to predict the exact path of all the work that needed to get done to get to today’s compounds). And there were likely many, many experiments from his lab, colleagues’s labs, and competitor’s labs that supported, refuted, and ultimately refined the work so that he could get to today’s compounds.

    Also, not all basic research pans out into real-world applications, whereas applied research is usually about finding the best ways to translate the science into something marketable.

    So, my definitions of applied versus basic science, involve time and feasibility, really. Is the work leading to something that can be placed on the market in just a few years? Is the concept well-validated and proven and the research just figuring out how to convert that concept into a marketable thing? Then that’s applied research.

    Anyone else agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear rebuttals!