Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Library: The NSF (2)

Note that industry used to fund a huge proportion of all research in the U.S.
‘THEORY’ AND ‘PRACTICE’ invariably merge in the long run. Franklin engaged in ‘fundamental’ or ‘theoretical’ research when he established the identity of lightning and electricity, but he hardly lowered himself by inventing the lightning-rod. Lister conducted his fundamental study of antisepsis for the practical purpose of reducing the risk of infections in surgery. Many illustrations can be given showing that the great ‘practical’ discoveries have sprung from research that deals with fundamentals rather than with applications. Before we could have electron tubes and hence radio broadcasting and television, industrial laboratories had to conduct searching investigations (which deserve the name ‘fundamental’) on the flow of currents through tenuous gases or in a vacuum, of the emission of electrons from heated filaments, and of a hundred other problems…

Theory is the Father of Practice [sic]

All this does not mean that the distinction between ‘fundamental’ and ‘applied’ research is without significance. There is nothing so practical as a theory that works…. Out of a sound theory, many inventions flow. No technologist today would think of following the example of Goodyear, who performed hundreds of experiments before he at last hit upon the way to vulcanize rubber with sulphur… It is possible that a way of controlling cancer may be discovered by accident. But it is more likely to result from ‘theoretical’ studies of normal and abnormal growth. Hence the scientists are right in insisting that the government spend its money on what they call ‘theoretical’ research, rather than on inventions and processes that may be useful to industry.

One of my least favorite delusions is that fundamental research is unnecessary and we should just fund cancer research- as Teresa Nielsen Hayden so eloquently says about publishing: you can't only publish bestsellers.

Gleevec and AMN107 are the poster drugs for basic research making good. Chronic myelogenous leukemia is most often caused by a Bcr-Abl fusion protein that has uncontrolled kinase activity (also known as the Philadelphia Chromosome). A specific inhibitor was found for this specific mutation, which was discovered by basic research. Then another inhibitor (AMN107) was designed to work against resistant mutations.

Without the knowledge from other research, this would never have been possible. You can't fix the car if you don't know how the engine works.

Previously: Friday Library: The NSF (1)


  1. Anonymous6:11 PM

    Just arrived here and couldn't resist a post when I saw that you were working on your thesis. I am a recovering grad student. Ph.D. in plant biology, 2002. I have houseplants a plenty too. Good luck with your thesis!

  2. Thanks, Nicole, and welcome! Yep, still soldiering on through. :)


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