“Without discovery research, without innovation, applied research can only go so far,” says MIT Institute Professor Phillip Sharp. “There are strikingly important things we just don’t know exist, but discovering them through basic science changes the whole world.”
That’s precisely what happened to Sharp. He came to MIT in 1974 to join the Center for Cancer Research, now the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where he conducted discovery research on the molecular biology of gene expression. Three years later, he discovered RNA splicing, which changed scientists’ understanding of the structure of genes, and in 1993, he won the Nobel Prize.
His discovery was part of the foundation for Biogen, now Biogen Idec, which he helped launch in 1981. The company is a world leader in synthesizing therapeutics to treat cancer and multiple sclerosis and was the catalyst that helped launch the biotechnology revolution.
“Fundamental discovery in biological science and its translation into science in the U.S. takes about 10 years,” Sharp says. “In the life sciences, fundamental research is the gatekeeper for advancing treatment and controlling disease. No question.”
Discovery research can lead to applications, new companies, jobs, economic growth, and competitiveness in the world, says Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science. “With more basic science, there are more discoveries, more ideas, and more raw material for people to come up with new products, new companies, new solutions.”
In fact, MIT has long been a force of innovation precisely because so many MIT discoveries enter the marketplace, he says, partly because of MIT’s Technology and Licensing Office, which makes licensing and patenting easier; partly because of the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Laboratory (“scientists partner with entrepreneurially minded people”); and partly because of MIT’s culture of cross-disciplinary research, blurring the boundaries between the schools of engineering and science. As a result, he adds, MIT leaders have transformed Kendall Square into a leading innovation cluster in the world.
“If it weren’t for basic science, we’d still be in the Stone Age,” Sipser says. “We’ve always needed science and we always will. Science helps us find new ideas, and problems need new ideas to be solved.”
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, adds that now more than ever, we need basic research to solve the great mysteries of our time — how the brain works, the search for life on other planets, the nature of dark matter, and more. And yet, federal funding in basic research is declining, she says, adding that in 1960, 55 percent of MIT’s campus revenue came from federal research dollars. By 2013, that figure fell to 22 percent.
“The federal government historically made the investment in basic science, and now they’re cutting back. Are we going to have the array of advances in basic science needed to address problems of the future? When you cut back on basic science, it affects practical world problems. You might not see an answer a year from now, but 10 years from now you will.”
Problem-solving is not the only reason to fund discovery research, Sipser says. Without it, we risk our technological edge in the world; we lose brilliant people to institutions where they’re better supported; and it’s trickier for faculty to embark on high-risk research, because they instead favor more certain outcomes.
“We need breakthrough research now more than ever,” he says. “The country’s leadership in the world depends on it.”