Innovation

I was struck by something CIHR President Alain Beaudet said:

We are also moving toward research that is more and more focused on problems rather than focused on a discipline. We used to do research in physiology or in anatomy or in biochemistry. Today, we are doing research on preventing lung diseases, or treating chronic heart disease. Researchers are now thinking of the impact of their research from the get-go.

I was more than struck. I was gobsmacked. Here is the head of a major health research agency openly rejecting the idea of basic research! I was not alone:

In short, this is a recipe for mediocrity in science and in innovation. To “move toward” focusing on problems suggests that this is different or separable from basic knowledge discovery. It is not. Innovation, applications, problem solving — whatever you want to call it — has to be built on top of robust and continuously well-supported basic research.

Innovation is a social phenomenon. It’s about people, and it’s about where they are. The geographical nature of innovation has been well-studied http://www.brookings.edu/about/programs/metro/innovation-districts. It is local — that can mean a neighborhood, a city, a region. In science, innovation relies on networks of trainees and collaborators that arise principally from having strong research universities as anchor institutions. There is no Kendall Square without Massachusetts’ universities, there is no Silicon Valley without California’s. Innovation in these places occurs almost as an epiphenomenon of the intellectual and creative ferment driven by the influx of basic research dollars from public funding agencies.

Multinational companies didn’t move to Kendall Square because someone cut a ribbon on an “innovation district” or for a tax break, they came for the people and the science — a public good created by large-scale investment in basic research by the NIH.

NIH’s achievements have not required mandating that scientists work with industry partners, or through ham-fisted forcing of an innovation agenda in academic research. NIH created an unparalleled research ecosystem where partnerships and innovation happen organically by funding a diversity of good scientists across the basic-applied spectrum to pursue the best scientific ideas and to go wherever those ideas took them. It was visionary, and it worked.

Now, CIHR asks that instead of following our ideas we should instead pursue goals, in particular disease-specific goals. Many scientists of course already do study particular diseases, but expecting that all should to do so, or should have prevention and cures as proximal goals, is folly. Beaudet is demanding that we lower our sights, suggesting that we can deliver long-term health advancements by applying only what we already know without also doing the work of discovery and exploration. He is wrong. Canada is a G8 country with one of the best education systems in the world and incredible resources, natural and human. We can afford to walk and chew gum at the same time, and we have a responsibility to do so.

Seen this way, the call for “goals over disciplines” is not even wrong. It is a false choice, and choosing one over the other will deny us of both. Science has always been interdisciplinary — we don’t need to be encouraged. It has become fashionable to dismiss disciplines as hidebound silos. I disagree. Narrow thinking can occur in any context, and disciplines remain important because they are where deep, focused thinking on fundamental problems happens. Disciplines cannot be isolated, but they must have space to continually grow and mature. Recognizing the obvious success and potential of interdisciplinary collaboration is an argument for vibrant, well-developed disciplines, not an argument against them.

Treatments for neurological disorders aren’t going to magically happen if we stop calling our selves “neuroscientists” and instead say “I study brain disease prevention.” They rely on translation, yes, but they also rely on neuroscientists doing basic research that increases our fundamental understanding of both healthy and diseased nervous systems and finding tools that aid in these discoveries.

I say “finding tools” because virtually all biotechnology is repurposed “found” technology. From Taq to GFP to optogenetics to CRISPR, many of our greatest tools and discoveries come from our curiosity about the living world and the careful observation of nature. No discoveries of these kinds would occur in the short-term, goal-oriented system Beaudet seems to envision. It is using publicly-funded science as an R&D service provider instead of the intellectual and creative driver of innovation that it has been and can be.

You cannot innovate instead of doing basic research, you can only innovate from a sustained commitment to basic research. It’s hard, it takes a long time, but it’s the only thing that works. Letting funding for academic science languish while claiming to be pro-innovation was the hypocrisy of the Harper government. Let’s leave it in the past and re-invest in the huge creative potential of Canadian science by continuing to fund the safest bet for a better future: curiosity and discovery.