Thursday, August 18, 2016

Trash Talking Translational Research

A new editorial (open access and less than a page long) in ACS Chemical Neuroscience takes a few swings at all the emphasis being placed on translational research and proposes that more of it should go back into basic research, particularly in synthetic chemistry. And of course, there are testimonials from famous synthetic chemists to support this view (surprising, huh?) The editorial is being praised around the internet (Ash Jogalekar, Chemjobber and Tehshik Yoon, and I'm sure there are more to follow.)

I don't agree, or perhaps more accurately, I think that the value of translational and applied research are greatly overlooked. Not because of their focus on a defined endpoint, but because of the unpredictable results that can arise from it. In some cases, the results are basic science. Consider these examples:
  • Louis Pasteur was trying to determine what caused wine to turn to vinegar, and ended up creating the field of microbiology.
  • While attempting to reduce noise in a communication signal, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the residual heat of the Big Bang.
  • Roy Plunkett was working was trying to improve the coolant gases used in refrigerators and discovered Teflon
  • Viagra was originally developed to help with angina pectoris (chest pains). It didn't do so well at that, but the researchers discovered an unexpected side effect.
Research is research is research, basic, applied or translational. It can (and should) lead to unexpected results. The old clichés are "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research" and "Chance favors the prepared mind". True clichés, but completely spot on in this case. Put them two together and good things will happen, including the discovery of fundamental science, intentional or not.


Previous Years

August 18, 2014 - 9 Activities that BOTH Academic Researchers and Industrial Researchers Perform

August 18, 2011 - Names for Biobased Polymers

August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010 - The Wall Street Journal and "Glass Transition"






2 comments:

Anonymous said...

While I agree somewhat, I think the problem is that if "basic science" is discovered in an applied setting, the current funding climate limits one's ability to follow up on said basic science.

The argument most are making is not that applied science has no place, it's that the balance has shifted too far away from the basic side. I wouldn't consider it "bashing". We need both in order to come up with breakthrough scientific discoveries, and it's getting increasingly difficult to perform basic science.

I think your latter two points are applied science changing its course to a different form of applied science, not necessarily applied science leading to breakthroughs in basic science.

Anonymous said...

It depends on what your perspective is. A lot of basic research is claiming importance (and getting funding) by claiming to be relevant, but I have the strong impression there is rarely any chance of a payoff from most of this research.