You can’t (only) target science funding: Covid-19 edition

Last week, I exulted in the astonishing scientific triumph represented by the availability – already! – of vaccines for Covid-19. This week I’m going to let myself slide back into curmudgeon mode, just a little bit, because I think there’s an important way in which some folks are missing the point of the Covid-19 vaccine story.

Like a lot of posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel, this one is inspired by several different events lining up in my head to point in a common direction:

  • First, my involvement (as president of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution) in a joint statement by Canadian scientific societies in support of Covid-19 vaccination. That got me thinking about how mind-bending it is that, just about a year into a novel-pathogen pandemic, we’re already worried about who gets vaccinated, and who wants to be.
  • Second, some discussions about the soon-to-be-announced Canadian federal budget. While our current federal government is quite science-friendly (a welcome change from the previous one), the concrete form that friendliness takes isn’t immune to the political winds. We’re seeing strong signals that the science part of the 2021 budget is likely to focus on climate change and pandemic preparedness.
  • Third, my service on NSERC’s (that’s the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) evaluation panel for Discovery Grants. Discovery Grants are the backbone of science funding in Canada for curiosity-based research (or “basic science”) – and it’s incredibly exciting to see the creative and important things Canadian university scientists are doing and proposing to do.

So how do these three events line up for me?  Well, let’s start with vaccines. We went all in on vaccine development, with resources pretty much any other piece of science can only dream of – and it’s paid off. So it’s only natural that people draw the lesson that the pace of science is limited by the resources society invests in it. That’s definitely true! But the temptation is to reason from there that we should now put similar resources into a vaccine for Chagas disease, or malaria, or dengue. Having vaccines against those diseases would be wonderful, of course, but this line of thinking is underlain by an important fallacy: you can’t effectively target science funding, or at least, you can’t do it for long.

What about the federal budget? Spending on responses to climate change and to the current pandemic (and future ones!) is hard to argue with* – but that prioritization is underlain by the same important fallacy as the “next vaccine” idea.

What about the NSERC grants panel? Well, this is where we see the other perspective. It’s true that targeted funding has produced safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines in a hurry. And that’s a triumph! But targeted funding only worked there because it was able to build on a foundation coming from many decades of fundamental research. Basic, curiosity-based research into molecular biology and immunology let us design the Covid-19 vaccines. Basic, curiosity-based research into disease ecology and epidemiology lets us understand transmission so we can deploy the vaccines in ways that will limit the spread of disease. Basic, curiosity-based research – well, you can pick your own favourite example.

I know at least four Canadian ecologists and evolutionary biologists who have pivoted their work over the last year to contribute to understanding Covid-19 spread in populations given different combinations of social distancing, travel restrictions, virus evolution, and vaccination. All of them could do this because their curiosity-based research has made them expert in things that suddenly became of applied importance. And maybe you could have predicted that this pivot would one day have become important – but would you have made that prediction in 1966 about fishing heat-tolerant bacterial out of Yellowstone hot springs (PCR), or in 1917 about a new mathematical model of quantum radiation (lasers)?

Look, I know this isn’t a novel point to make (I refer you, as I frequently do, to this blog’s masthead).  But it may be the most important point a scientist can make. For those who control the resources that fuel science – politicians, philathropists, and the like – it will always be tempting to chase the flashy applied result that’s just close enough to reality to make an obvious funding target. But that targeting strategy only works if you have a foundation to build on.** Our ability to target resources at problems now depends on basic science done a few years or a few decades ago. And our ability to target resources at the problem we’ll face in 2050 (whatever it might be) will depend on the results of work going on right now – work that someone, somewhere, is doubtlessly deriding as idle curiosity.***

So if there’s just one thing we need people to understand about science, it’s that it can only be a skyscraper if it has a broad foundation under it. It’s untargeted funding, available for basic science even when it isn’t obvious how that will pay off, that makes the whole enterprise move forward. I say this a lot, but I think I need to say it more. I think we all do. Every time we marvel at an advance, let’s celebrate the basic science underlying it. It’s always there.

© Stephen Heard March 2, 2021

Image: © Adam Fagen  via flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


*^Well, they’re easy to argue with if you’re willing to be intellectually dishonest, stupid, evil, or some combination of those three. Which, apparently, is well within the wheelhouse of major political parties in Canada and around the world. Sigh.

**^There’s a parable about building one’s house upon rock. But I kind of prefer this related parable. Well, sort of related. I think. Oh, who cares, it’s brilliant regardless.

***^Anyone remember William Proxmire? In the 1980s, his disdain for basic science made him arguably the dumbest member of the U.S. Senate. Sadly, in 2021, he wouldn’t crack the top 10. Gosh, I wasn’t kidding about the return of my curmudgeonliness, was I?

4 thoughts on “You can’t (only) target science funding: Covid-19 edition

  1. Ken Hughes

    This reminds me of a good quote: “If you can identify an economic benefit you shouldn’t be funding it. That’s what we have a venture capital community for.” (From John Sununu, New Hampshire senator and engineering PhD, as quoted in the book Range by David Epstein.)

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  2. Pingback: TGIF – Candid Cerebrations

  3. Pingback: What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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