A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

On the importance of basic research

Photo credits: Sushobhan Badhai

Some questions in science are grandiose and tackle issues of great social impact, like: how can we cure cancer? Others are less flamboyant, but not necessarily less important. For example, a question that is the focus of my PhD is how neurons code and relay the acoustic information. Literature describes a fascinating phenomenon in certain types of neurons – phase locking (synchronisation of neuronal firing with the period of the sound wave reaching the ear1) and its enhancement further down the neuronal path, which itches me and many auditory researchers worldwide. We don’t understand how it happens.

When I talk to my neuroscientist friends about my research, it is obvious for us, that we need to know precisely how phase locking works. But when I tell my family or layman friends about my PhD, the question that comes after “hmm, sounds complicated” is “what is the point of your research? How is it useful?” A question that I hate. Not because I cannot answer it. I can. For instance, the improvement of sound coding strategies in cochlear implants could be the implication of my study. But that is not the point. The point is to expand our understanding of nervous system. And it saddens me that simply adding another ingredient to our large pot of common knowledge is not considered a valid reason for conducting research. This is the moment in the conversation when I start talking about the importance of what we call “basic science”.

Basic vs. applied research

Research. An activity aimed at investigating in detail certain subject or phenomenon often leading to new discoveries. In science we generally distinguish two types of research: applied and basic. What is the difference between the two? Expectations. Basic research, also known as fundamental or pure research, aims to broaden our understanding of the world around us, often without a detailed idea of the application of the gained knowledge. On the other hand, applied research is expected to provide concrete solutions to pre-determined problems faced by humanity. Two philosophies intertwined – one could not exist without the other. Two different motivations for doing science.

Keep calm and be curious

When I was a bachelor student I had a rare opportunity to attend a lecture by prof. Stephen Hawking who once visited my alma mater. During the Q&A after his talk someone asked what his advice to young scientists would be. His answer was: “to be curious and try to make sense of what you see”. One of the greatest minds of our times was a big advocate of maintaining this eagerness to learn and courage to ask questions: “how” and “why” and he attributed his scientific success to his child-like curiosity.

Curiosity is also the main driver for me as a scientist. The willingness to understand the mechanisms governing us and the world around. It is the “how” that interests me the most. “How” drives me more than “what for”. It is partly due to my hard-to-explain intrinsic quest for knowledge (some call it “passion”) and partly due to my belief that we can come up with a more efficient fix for the system if we understand the system well in the first place.

To expand knowledge – a goal not good enough?

A great evolutionary strength of humanity is our ability to accumulate knowledge and pass it on to the next generations. The perspective of contributing to this collective effort is very exciting to me. It is almost like adding a fertiliser to the soil that everyone can then use to grow different types of fruits. The big collection of scientific evidence and theories continuously inspires scientists and engineers to develop new ideas and create new inventions. However, harvest time and flavour can vary a lot.

It is understandable that when it comes to allocating funds for research, the authorities would like to know the end product of the project they choose to support. To stay within the metaphor, they are like the owners of the land. They want to know what, how much and when they can harvest. Public money has to be spend wisely and should ensure benefit for the society. When you invest in basic research you do not know the quantity, the flavour of the fruit or the time of harvest. But cultivating only one crop can be very limiting and eventually lead to the depletion of nutrients.

James Simons, an American mathematician and a successful entrepreneur, concerned by the restricted federal funding for pure research, started a foundation which mission is to support fundamental science2. His mathematical discoveries found immense applications in physics, but only about a decade after the publication. As he stressed in one of the interviews2, he was not into physics and had no idea what his discovery could be used for when he was writing the paper together with Shiing-Shen Chern. He simply loved maths.

Applied research is standing on the shoulders of basic science

So far I shared with you personal frustrations and big ideas. But I don’t always have my head in the clouds, I also like to keep my feet on the ground. Developing new therapies or machines would not be possible without the basic understanding of how nature works. Here are a couple of examples.

A renowned journal Cell recently published an article describing the development of optogenetics – a revolutionary technique of targeted neuronal stimulation with light following introduction of photosensitive proteins into the nerve cells3. Who would have thought that a seemingly pointless fascination with algae, where opsins – light-sensitive protein channels – were discovered, would become the foundation of a modern branch of neuroscience? Optogenetics unlocked a vast range of possibilities for neuroscientists who can now explore new avenues within the realms of basic research, but also pushed forward clinical research on therapies for vision and hearing loss4.

And why the heck do these scientists waste time studying barn owls? Shouldn’t we focus on mammals, something more closely related to humans so that we can translate the results to medicine? Well, it turns out that nature is full of solutions to major engineering issues, such as energy efficiency. Our good understanding of the neural circuit involved in sound localisation in barn owls allowed a group of engineers from Pennsylvania State University to build a precise biomimetic navigation device5.

Conclusion

There is not a single good approach to do science, there is no one correct type of motivation. Applied science could not exist without basic science, as there would be nothing to apply. They have to be developed in parallel. Some research ideas appear stupid and hard to justify. We even have a special awards dedicated to them – Ig Nobel. And yes, some of those ideas are laughable. But please think twice before you dismiss somebody’s work as useless. You never know, in 20 years it might lead to an invention that could save your life.

References

1. Joris, P. X. & Smith, P. H. The volley theory and the spherical cell puzzle. Neuroscience 154, 65–76 (2008).

2. Numberphile2. James Simons on Basic Research – Numberphile. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sB_OdGGA450 (2015).

3. Friedman, J. M. How the discovery of microbial opsins led to the development of optogenetics. Cell 184, 5266–5270 (2021).

4. Kleinlogel, S., Vogl, C., Jeschke, M., Neef, J. & Moser, T. Emerging Approaches for Restoration of Hearing and Vision. Physiol. Rev. 100, 1467–1525 (2020).

5. Das, S., Dodda, A. & Das, S. A biomimetic 2D transistor for audiomorphic computing. Nat. Commun. 10, 1–10 (2019).