A lesson from Nobel laureates: Basic science requires federal dollars

On Dec. 2, the Washington Post reported that President Obama met with the 11 American recipients of this year’s Nobel prizes.  Not surprisingly, very little of their groundbreaking research would have been possible without federal support for basic science research.

In total, the researchers have received tens of millions of dollars in federal grants.  Among them, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol Grieder and Jack W. Szostak, who were awarded the prize in physiology and medicine, have received more than $22 million in grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.  Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz, recipients of the chemistry prize, have received about $14 million from the same part of the NIH.

While their discoveries have had far-reaching implications in medicine and health, the original research of the two groups is fundamentally basic science.  The uncertain prospects for application make necessary, basic science studies unattractive for industry research.

In the Washington Post article, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, emphasized the importance federal funding for groundbreaking basic science.  “Without federal support, there would be no support for this kind of research, because the federal government is the only one that provides basic science support,” said Leshner.

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