Bipartisan support behind the recent passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in the U.S. House of Representatives shows that in spite of the bitter partisanship that has threatened another government shutdown, the United States has broad cross-party cooperation for the advancement of science.
The legislation, which would provide increased federal funding for research and get new treatments to patients more quickly, is essential. To safeguard our science enterprise, the federal government must continue to assume its share of the effort, as it seeks to do with the 21st Century Cures Act. But we cannot leave this enterprise entirely to government. Philanthropy needs to be more involved.
We Americans practice philanthropy on a scale unmatched globally, and we also create fortunes on a scale unmatched globally. The newly wealthy — the next generation of Bill Gateses and Warren Buffetts — have a role to play in ensuring that scientific discoveries continue to underpin our future.
It is in this context that The Kavli Foundation and three leading universities — Johns Hopkins University, Rockefeller University, and the University of California at San Francisco — today announced a $65-million financial commitment to create three new Kavli Institutes dedicated to basic neuroscience research. This development, combined with commitments between the foundation and universities with existing Kavli Institutes in neuroscience, brings the total of new investment in brain science to more than $100 million globally. This support is part of meeting a public commitment the foundation made to support the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative with at least $40 million.
We — philanthropy, government, and business working together — need to fund basic science if we want to transform efforts to help the more than one billion people worldwide who suffer from devastating brain disorders, and we must sustain this investment.
Still, it’s not enough to support research leading to the development of new treatments or other applications of science. If we shortchange basic science, we jeopardize tomorrow’s great discoveries, deal a serious blow to brain-disorder treatment, and miss out on the innovations — built upon basic discoveries — that help drive economic and quality-of-life improvements. Whether it’s the desire to understand the world around us (think Albert Einstein) or to address critical problems like curing or preventing disease (think Louis Pasteur), basic science is the factory that produces the fundamental knowledge that has improved our economy, defense, and quality of life over the past century.
Unfortunately, basic science is the area of science that grant makers — government and private alike — pay less attention to these days, preferring to put greater support into applied or immediately "useful" science. This is an understandable instinct. Areas such as nanotechnology or what is called "translational medicine" — that is, work that takes the fruits of basic science and turns them into new tests or treatments — will yield practical outcomes and economic impact in the short term. But basic science is the long-term investment to produce the knowledge that will yield revolutions in science and medicine in the decades to come.
Why this shift from basic to applied science?
Following World War II, the federal government invested in basic research at universities as a way to help defend the country and build our economy. This partnership between government and major research universities, with support from private donors, has long sustained our science enterprise while producing one of our most valuable assets: the world’s greatest collection of universities.
Since the end of the Cold War, national defense as a rationale for basic science research has become less of a driving force. And in this new era of fiscal constraint, growing demand for immediate returns on tax-funded investments — and returns that can demonstrate job creation — is shifting financial support to shorter-term, applied research.
This is occurring even though history shows that the payback from basic science is unexpectedly large and far-reaching. The tremendous progress we’ve made over the past 50 years in treating cancer and managing AIDS is a direct outgrowth of basic science.
The $3-billion Human Genome Project, formally launched by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health in 1990 and completed in 2003, is the best-known recent example of a basic-science enterprise. It is difficult to overstate the ramifications of this project. It revolutionized how we understand ourselves and the world around us, and it is driving myriad applications to improve people’s lives. Moreover, it has produced an estimated economic output of nearly $800 billion to date.
Leaps of progress like this are occurring not just in medicine. The new Apple watch you’re wearing? The cellphone in your pocket? The Internet? The inner workings of all can be traced back to advances in basic scientific discoveries — some made as far back as a century ago.
Today, brain research is the next scientific frontier. Over the last century, science has helped extend the average human life span by 60 percent. Now we face the challenge of preserving the human mind and protecting it from disorders such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. To do this, we must expand our fundamental understanding of the human brain, just as we exponentially expanded our understanding of the human genome.
We will all benefit from the fruits of basic science. And that means all of us — philanthropy, business, and the federal government — must make a sustained commitment to this endeavor.
Bob Conn is president of the Kavli Foundation.