Back to basics

26 March 2012

Portrait of Professor Quentin Sattentau

by Professor Quentin Sattentau
Professor of Immunology

Oxford Martin Senior Alumni FellowQuentin Sattentau was a Principal Investigator in the Oxford Martin Programme on Vaccines, which was part of the Oxford Martin School from 2010-2015.Quentin's work centres around the interaction of the human immunode...

I Stock dra schwartz microscope
© Istock/dra Schwartz

While science and industry draw ever closer, we must not forget the purest, curiosity-driven research, emphasises James Martin Senior Fellow, Institute for Vaccine Design, Professor Quentin J Sattentau.

The outcomes of scientific enquiry have formed our understanding of the universe and profoundly influenced how we interact with the world we live in and with each other. Scientific knowledge has been key in reducing human suffering, fear of the unknown and our reliance on superstition and fatalism. In the last 100 years alone, the fruits of scientific research have improved our health and welfare more than ever before, particularly in the field of biomedicine, for example, which has contributed dramatically to our understanding, avoidance and treatment of disease.

Towards the end of the 20th Century, we entered a phase of biomedical research where 'payback' became the buzzword. All that hard won and expensive knowledge should translate into economic and clinical benefit, and the sooner the better. Spin-off companies were established, links with industry forged, and ties between clinicians and academics strengthened.

Academia, once the clearly defined home of curiosity-driven research led by scientists and teachers, now has its borders entirely blurred with those of the pharmaceutical industry and clinical medicine. All this is good: many ideas that in the past might have remained buried in specialised journals or abandoned at an early stage are now likely to be picked up rapidly and developed into something useful.

However, the path to scientific discovery is often uncertain, and nature is always throwing up surprises and unexpected challenges. Moreover, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict new ideas, particularly those that are truly paradigm shifting.

Such a sentiment was expressed by Dr Marcus Storch, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. At his opening address of the 2011 Nobel Prize Award ceremony, he said: "It is important to ensure that all the efforts we make to support innovation do not make us forget basic research, whose share of our total investments has recently declined. Creative research is long term, original and difficult to plan. It must therefore be allowed to operate under conditions that suit its nature."1

These conditions that suit the nature of basic research are principally time and funding. Basic research often requires many years to come to fruition, but is generally good value: one medium-sized clinical trial costs as much as multiple basic science projects.

New ideas are frequently generated by serendipity and are often not immediately appreciated for their intrinsic value. For example, the potential of monoclonal antibodies, discovered in 1975 by scientists trying to understand the basis of antibody specificity, was not fully appreciated by most of the research and funding community for years, but is now at the centre of a global therapeutic, diagnostic and research industry worth an estimated US$55bn.2

But utility and wealth generation are not the only values we should attribute to discoveries in biology. Charles Darwin's work on natural selection led to our current concept of evolution, an idea that fundamentally changed the way we understand our origins and our place in the world.

As we navigate our way through an extended period of global financial difficulty, we should reassess our short and longer-term goals. Against a backdrop of diminishing finite resources, we could take the view that translation and innovation must be further prioritised and accelerated to generate maximum value in the shortest time.

This view of 'mission-driven' research is firmly supported by the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.3
However, we should also take the view that current and future generations of aspiring researchers must be provided with adequate resources to fulfil their aspirations to do truly creative, curiosity-driven basic research. Without this latter view, we stand to have a dwindling pipeline of new ideas to serve as a substrate for creativity, innovation and inspiration as we move further into the 21st Century.
3Public Service Review: European Science & Technology: issue 13 pp. 53-55

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.