You've heard about some of these pet projects, they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not."
In her classic run-on style, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin imparted this wisdom to a crowd during her 2008 campaign for vice president.
Also in classic style, she was seriously misinformed about fruit fly research, which is neither a punch line nor ineffective for the public good. This quote was met with ire at the time from the large fruit fly research community, who understand that these humble bugs are excellent organisms for studying the functions of genes and proteins that cause human diseases.
In 2008, when I was an eager freshman at Ohio University studying biological sciences, the vice-presidential candidate's speech felt like a personal jab at me and my fledgling career. But it was also an early reminder of the large gap between the scientists and the public.
Almost 10 years later, I now find myself with a PhD doing research…on fruit flies. And I would hesitate to say that the public opinion toward basic research has changed much at all in the past decade.
We can all agree that scientific research is important. When you think about it, the end goal of most science is to improve the human experience. Scientists develop ways to treat diseases, improve safety, and predict disasters. As a result, we've made groundbreaking discoveries that have improved the world around us. But sometimes the benefits aren't immediately clear, and some Americans do not believe that federal tax dollars should be spent on research that doesn't have a direct benefit on humans.
Nothing basic about it
We call this kind of work "basic" science. It's the kind of research which aims to understand the world around us. This is distinct from applied science, which uses what we know to develop tools that solve a specific problem. Developing a drug to treat colon cancer is applied research, for instance, while researching the physiology of the intestine is basic. It's easy to see that you can't do applied research without understanding the underlying basic science.
But basic science is so much more than just the foundation that supports applied research. Basic science can create whole new fields of research that didn't exist before.
In the early 2000s, several labs were trying to understand how bacteria defend themselves against viruses, reasoning that if we can understand how bacteria live and reproduce, we can develop more effective antibiotics to combat infections. Their research projects had an unexpected benefit: 10 years later it led to development of CRISPR technology, a tool that allows scientists to edit genomes quicker and easier than ever before. This technology could be used to prevent the spread of malaria, and has the potential to revolutionize medicine by offering a possible treatment for diseases caused by specific gene mutations, such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. And it all started with an unexpected discovery by scientists doing basic research.
Fruit flies, actin and cancer
In my own work, I study a protein called actin, one of the main components of the cytoskeleton. Much like the skeletons of our body, the cytoskeleton provides structure and anchor points for our muscles, allowing cells to move. Cell movement is a critical stage of cancer metastasis, so understanding actin is vital to understanding cancer.
Oddly enough, to study actin formation, we look at fruit fly eggs. That's because there is a point during their egg development when massive amounts of actin are suddenly produced. In our lab, we take these eggs, put them on a microscope, and watch and wait. After a few minutes we see tiny fluorescent bands stretching across the cell. These are cables of actin, and watching them grow is like like watching a meteor shower cast across the sky. It is as beautiful as it is incredible that this is occurring all the time in our cells. But beauty aside, watching actin form helps us understand how cells move, and thus brings us closer to demystifying cancer metastasis.
Similar experiments can be done in cells grown in a petri dish, but we know that many things change as soon as cells are forced to grow on plastic. So if we want to understand how cells produce actin in an organism, we need to use an animal model. Flies strike a perfect balance between being simple enough to manipulate experimentally and complex enough to share important features with most animals, including humans. An added bonus of this model is that fruit flies are inexpensive, they have a short generation time, and they develop at room temperature – no incubators needed here!
In the end, we hope to understand more about how cancer develops, but along the way we may learn more about development, how cells move, or about something else that no one can predict. Maybe this work will lead to the discovery of a new biomaterial or new technique that helps us control cell movement? To me, the unknowns in basic science is what makes it the most exciting place to work.
How you can help
Despite the importance of basic research, there are still many people who don't recognize how it creates the possibilities for amazing discoveries, and undergirds so much daily life, from the physics of a car engine to food on the table and life-saving medicines. This resistance to science, unfortunately, has become more and more pervasive among lawmakers, many of whom are skeptical about fundamental research into topics like climate change, and support policies that hinder basic science. For the first time in US history, less than 50 percent of funding to basic science comes from the government.
Citizens can step up for basic science on election days and all the time between them. For one, you can demand that your representatives support science funding, or vote for one who will. But you can also start by learning more about basic science, and supporting its programs and institutions.
Read science columns, follow scientific journals on social media, and try to understand why scientists study certain research topic. Visit museums, aquariums, and other institutions with active research programs. If you have questions, ask a scientist.
And then, over dinner or a drink, over long holidays and in the office, tell your friends about the interesting, surprising, and strange things you've discovered. What we need most is a cultural shift to a society where all citizens understand how science affects their lives, and the excitement in breakthroughs and daily research alike. It won't happen overnight. But it will have lasting benefits. And who knows? Maybe our focus on the basics can lead to unpredictable breakthroughs in society as well.