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February 5, 2017 / jpschimel

Taken-for-granted basic science: it might save your life

Today I went to the doctor and received a death sentence. Or rather, what would have been one a century ago. Today, I barely blinked. I’ve had a persistent sinus cold for three weeks. Yesterday, I started running light fever, the cough felt deeper in my chest, and the icky gunk I was coughing up was darker. Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger! Those are classic symptoms of secondary bacterial infection—bronchitis or potentially pneumonia. This morning I went to urgent care and the doctor told me she heard  rattly noises at the base of my right lung. Pneumonia. When I was a kid, my parents’ and grandparents’ memories made that a terrifying word. When they were kids, 20% of Americans died of pneumonia or related problems—and I would have been on track to joining them.

Today, I can tell my junior colleagues that there probably won’t be a new ecosystem ecologist job opening at UCSB in a hurry. OK, there is a chance (and a larger one than even a decade ago) that this could be a resistant pathogen and that my life may become hell for the next weeks until I get better—or don’t. But those odds remain slight.

Is there any other common experience in life that so highlights the enormous power of basic science—Streptomycin was discovered in the lab of Selman Waksman, a soil microbiologist. Pennicilin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in an accidental experiment in microbial ecology—observing the interaction of a soil fungus and a pathogenic bacterium. I am likely to survive this infection with little more than mild misery because of the results of fundamental scientific research.

Antibiotics, however, are a truly terrible business proposition. A new antibiotic can cost $1 Billion to bring to market. Yet, once available, doctors are encouraged to not use it, patients probably only take it for a week, and it may only be months before new pathogens start becoming resistant. No rational company would want to invest in such a miserable product. Yet, without them, the quiet rattle in my lung is increasingly likely to become a death rattle.

These kinds of fundamental life-changing and life-saving discoveries arise from basic research, freed of an immediate demand to produce economically viable products. I could tell a similar story about the cell phone I used to text my wife about what was going on. Or why I don’t get laughed at in shoe stores anymore—try asking for size 15’s!

Open, creative research is the ultimate fuel of the technology that drives our society. Yet, the failure to adequately fund basic research in the U.S. has already threatened the health of the system as funding rates have dropped below 10%. The NSF reauthorization act during the George W. Bush administration had proposed doubling the NSF budget—but it was never funded even though it would have cost the federal government a relative pittance: under $10 Billion/year. A small price to pay for a society’s health, to say nothing of the lives of us who won’t die of pneumonia.

There has been pressure to try to force basic science to more directly demonstrate an immediate economic benefit. Had those been the rules in the 1930’s and 40’s the antibiotic era wouldn’t have started. Alternative facts aren’t very useful when a doctor hears a rattle in your lungs. Then, there is just the question: which tools derived from basic science will they use to save your life?

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