Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Basic Instinct

Basic v Applied Research:

Any experience in life can be reduced to groups of cells firing in your brain. Whether you move your foot, see the color green, smell a rose, or reflect on a childhood memory, neurons rapidly changing their electrical and chemical state are responsible.

In graduate school I had an opportunity to observe and record the firing patterns of individual neurons in a variety of brain regions. To measure the activity of a single brain cell in an non-anesthetized animal (which is important because drugs effect brain activity), an elegant technique called single-unit electrophysiology is employed. An electrode thinner than a human hair is slowly lowered into the brain, and the tiny changes in electrical properties expressed by neurons are amplified and recorded.

Over the course of a few years, and possibly at the expense of my sanity, I isolated and recorded the firing patterns of about three hundred visual neurons. This allowed me to characterize how cells in a specific brain region increased and decreased their activity, as well as better understand what nearby neurological areas the signals were transmitted to. Compared to trying to cure cancer or inventing a new fuel source, how important is this type of research?

Doing science for the sake of science is called basic research. It often has no obvious health or commercial application but is the source of most new scientific ideas. Basic research is usually descriptive or explanatory, and pushes a scientific or technical field forward by adding to the knowledge base and provoking new questions. Perhaps the most powerful example is modern computers, which would not exist without the 200 years worth of pure research in mathematics that preceded them.

In contrast to basic is applied research. Essentially, applied research is designed to solve practical problems of the modern world, rather than to acquire knowledge for knowledge's sake. Applied research is often aimed at somehow improving the human condition. Examples range from developing a drug that treats a specific disease to studying how urban environments can become more energy efficient. The benefits of applied research projects are more obvious and immediate, which helps them to be viewed positively by the general public and federal funding agencies.

It makes sense to want to improve health or stumble upon another multi-billion dollar commercial application (yes, we're looking at you Gatorade), but is it fair for basic and applied researchers to fight for money from the same source? In the days of Sputnik and the Cold War, funding for basic research thrived, but with a squeezed economy and a struggle for funding in all research areas are basic researchers suffering more? The need to advocate for research, both basic and applied is more crucial now than ever.

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