You want technology? Then pay for scientific research | KUOW News and Information

You want technology? Then pay for scientific research

Mar 23, 2017

Let's talk for a minute about how invention works in our world.

One way to divide the process of inventing is into 1) basic science research, and 2) technological application. The first helps us gain an understanding of how our world works and what it looks like. The second takes that knowledge, then figures out what we should do with it to gain some sort of advantage.

For example, basic scientific research would learn the different chemical receptors on a cell. The technological application would be to develop a chemical (aka drug) that would bind to that receptor and have some sort of positive effect.

One question facing a researcher at any level is always, "Okay, but what is the practical application?"

For basic science research, there is rarely an immediate or direct application. However, developing technology is absolutely reliant upon it, and therefore it is absolutely necessary. What makes basic science difficult in our economy, though, is that it is hard to protect your knowledge of it.

Often to make advances, you must collaborate with researchers around the world, using many public sources of information. Even if you did make a discovery on your own, you can't patent natural processes, so as soon as you try to apply it to a product, everyone will find out and you can't stop them from copying you. As such, private investors such as corporations don't do basic science research. Not only can they not own it, but there is no money to be made anyway.

Technological applications, on the other hand, are hugely profitable and easily protected/owned.

Another example: Knowing how electromagnetic radiation travels through air makes you no money, but building a device that is designed to send and receive them (aka, a radio) is very valuable. They can be expensive to develop and require deep expertise, but are often invested in by private entities because of the profit potential.

So the ability of industry to create new products that improve our lives is dependent on private entities' investment, but also requires advancement in basic science, which they don't do. Then who does? You guessed it, science funded by you and me through our government and done at universities and government labs.

Why bring this up now? The proposal on the table is for cuts in the National Institutes of Health budget by 20 percent, huge cuts to scientific funding at the Department of Energy, and even more cuts at the National Science Foundation (which has already had huge cuts in previous years).

Each of these agencies funds basic science research in different areas of science. These cuts don't run parallel to industry spending, they happen earlier in the process. This isn't a small decrease in total technology research across our whole economy; this is cutting out the foundation. Private industry won't pick up the slack either for the reasons mentioned above.

What does this lead to and why care? Well, if you're over 80 years old, you probably shouldn't care. Basic science takes time, and technology can be developed only after the science is understood, which means several more years of waiting. The severely curtailed development of technology won't really catch up to you before you die.

If you're younger than 80, however, this is the science that will power the technologies you'll need to stay alive and to prosper. This is a massive attack on your future quality of life. Medicine, communication, comfort, transportation, safety and more will all be far worse in your lifetime because of this.

This isn't a partisan issue. Politicians on both sides of the aisle publicly acknowledge the value of scientific research. But the public doesn't vote based on support for science. The public doesn't write their representatives or senators based on science. The public doesn't get up in arms about cuts to science.

This needs to change. Science is important. It is important to you, important to me, important to all of us. 

So please, if not for everyone, then for yourself, let Congress know that you oppose the proposed cuts to basic science research funding. Even better, tell them you want to see research funding increased, at least back to historical levels. It's for our own good.

A child naps at a hostel in Soweto South Africa. In Soweto, one in three pregnant women live with HIV. The University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Research Center both receive federal research money, which allows them to work on HIV vaccine trials.
Credit AP Photo/Denis Farrell

Washington state receives more federal research dollars than most states. The top five recipients of National Institutes for Health grants in this state in 2016:

University of Washington, Seattle: $458,547,566

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle: $247,673,967

Seattle Children's Hospital: $50,107,892

Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, Seattle: $43,941,094

Washington State University, Pullman: $27,769,363   

Dr. Daniel Vandervelde is the CTO of 3Discovered. Throughout his career he has commercialized early stage technologies and advised leaders of industry on technology strategy. He makes his home in Seattle, Washington.