My candidate for the most unheralded scientific session at this gigantic meeting – with 10,000 papers and 15,500 attendees – began at 9 a.m. Sunday in one of the more obscure meeting rooms in the Marriott Hotel.
Barely two dozen people were in the audience. One, however, found time to open the half-day session despite an unimaginably busy schedule filled with competing priorities. That individual was E. Ann Nalley, ACS president. Another was a reporter from Chemical & Engineering News who sensed the significance of the topic.
The symposium topic? The final words of a somewhat unwieldy title say it all: "Health Materials and Techniques: Research and Development Over the Past 25 Years: Investment in Basic Research Leading to Benefits for Society."
"I want us to tell the story of basic research and its role in making society better and the relationship of basic and applied research," Nalley said.
It’s a story that science journalists should tell more often. I certainly gave it short shrift during several decades as a newspaper science writer. After all, the biggest news usually involves events that connect with the lives of readers. I mean discoveries that will make life healthier, happier, longer, and easier. Applied research does that. It gets most of the increasingly small news hole in print publications, airtime in the broadcast realm, and space online.
Research done to expand scientific knowledge, with no immediate practical application, plays second fiddle in the news symphony. That is one definition of basic research.
With basic research’s potential benefits often sidelined by discoveries that have immediate practical impact, public and political support for basic research funding can weaken.
"Basic research pays off with incredible leaps into the future," noted Mary Virginia Orna, who organized the symposium for the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry. Orna noted that history has a lot to teach us about the value of basic research. Basic research discoveries with no apparent use led, for instance, to new diagnostic instruments including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and medicines that save countless lives.
Helen Free detailed one classic example. Free (namesake for a major ACS award) and her husband used basic research discoveries to develop the "dip-and-read" tests that first enabled diabetics to easily and accurately monitor their blood glucose levels at home.
Other such tests followed. Today they account for global sales of almost $30 billion annually. One the horizon, Free noted, are products that once seemed fantasy. They include diagnostic chips based on pharmacometabonomics that may enable physicians to personalize medical care, determining how individual patients will respond to specific medications before writing the prescription.
This small part of a huge scientific program made me recall a famous quotation from Mary Lasker, the philanthropist and advocate for medical research. "If you think research is expensive," Lasker said, "try disease."
-- Michael Woods