We need a new way to generate knowledge that transformative science provides in order to boost global economic growth
Dr. Basavappa currently administrates grants in the NIGMS Department of Cell Biology and Biophysics and coordinates AIDS research for this Institute. He also participates in a number of programs led by the NIH Common Fund, related to funding high-risk, high-return research, such as the NIH Director’s Pioneer, Director’s Transformative R01 and the New Innovator Awards.
Over the past decades, science has advanced more than in all of its history. This has happened in all areas of science but even more so in the health sciences. So, why is transformative research so important in this arena?
We are living in a vertiginous world in which the ever-increasing complexity of biomedical research requires scientists to go beyond the limits of their individual disciplines and to explore new organizational and teamwork models. Breakthroughs in molecular imaging, for example, require collaboration among various groups of radiologists, cell biologists, physicists and computer programmers. Nevertheless, most research carried out around the world is concentrated in a limited number of laboratories, or even done by scientists working individually on an idea. This makes it difficult for these ideas to spread to the scientific community at large, or delays this process, and impedes different groups from contributing to this knowledge, ratifying or questioning the results. Establishing a new road map is never simple, but we need a new way to generate knowledge that transformative science provides in order to boost global economic growth.
The NIH Common Fund was created in 2006 to support this frontier science and speed up progress in biomedicine. Can you tell us more about it?
Traditionally, NIH project reviews were very conservative. Great ideas lacking reliable proof suffered in the evaluation process. As the review process tended to avoid taking risks, opportunities to take substantial leaps forward in science and public health could be squandered. As a result, this initiative was created in 2006 specifically to support high-risk research that has the potential to have a large impact. Since then, roughly $25 millions are earmarked each year to fund this type of project. All areas of research with links to the NIH mission are welcome and researchers at any stage of their professional career are eligible, although those who are just starting out or are in the intermediary stages, women and other underrepresented groups in biomedical research are particularly encouraged.
What advantages does receiving one of these grants give researchers?
We offer four funding opportunities for scientists. One is the Director's Pioneer Award Program. It is a unique program that supports individual scientists with innovative ideas and approaches to the main challenges of today in biomedical research. As a result of the program announcement, in January 2003, the NIH received approximately 1,000 proposals. After various stages of review by external evaluators, the winners receive $500,000 per year for five years. This grant gives researchers the time and resources to develop and prove wide-reaching ideas and to make truly revolutionary discoveries, as they can hire personnel or purchase new equipment. They have the flexibility to do what they feel is necessary, making them more productive, and their expectations and results are met more effectively than more conventional researchers.
What type of projects has the NIH Common Fund backed so far?
In terms of high-risk research, our portfolio is highly varied. Researchers that receive these grants have made important breakthroughs in how the microorganisms that cause tuberculosis become resistant to antibiotics, in improving diagnosis through blood analysis, and have created screening methods for drug research to promote nerve regeneration. Currently, we are funding work related to the human microbiome project that aims to characterize the microbial communities that cohabitate in the body. On any person, each human cell holds ten bacteria. So we aren’t alone in our bodies, but no two people have the same population or the same combination of microorganisms. These bacteria communicate with human cells and have a huge impact on disease and susceptibility to different drugs, among other issues. Doctors have already linked obesity, heart disease and anxiety with microbiome properties. The NIH Common Fund recognizes the opportunity to go further in this field by using recent breakthroughs in DNA sequencing and is providing significant support to identify the species that make up our personal internal ecosystem and how this contributes to health and disease. The first results have been successful and we are getting a highly precise image of how the microbiome develops and diversifies.
What projects are eligible to be considered “transformative research”?
It is difficult to predict which research projects will translate into transformative results before the research is carried out and its results assimilated by the scientific community. Transformative research is something that is only understood in hindsight. But what we can do is select a portfolio of high-quality projects that approach the same frontiers from different directions.
To be considered a pioneer, a project must tackle important challenges, change the way we think or do research in a specific field or even create a new field of scientific knowledge. It must lead to new techniques or methodology and close gaps in our knowledge. It must be unique and with a wide range of possible applications. A pioneer is optogenetics. By inserting light-sensitive proteins into neurons, neuroscientists can control the brain circuits with lasers. This revolutionary technology is radically changing the way neuroscientists study our behavior and how our brain works.
On the other hand, a non-transformative project would, for example, be a study that discovers a receptor that may be important but doesn’t change the rules of the game developed in this discipline in recent years
What changes to our scientific model do you believe are necessary if we hope to grow and build the knowledge society of the future?
Huge changes must be made to funding and scientific policy, to infrastructure and education. I believe that the latter is particularly important because education is a powerful transformative element. The educational system in the United States must start valuing science from an earlier age. For some reason, many children still believe that scientists are freaks and aren’t attracted to science. We must transmit to the coming generations, from a very early age, that they are the researchers of the future, that science has an impact on society unlike almost anything else.
How do you think these workshops organized by B·Debate and the Pasqual Maragall Foundation help achieve this same goal?
These meetings are very important. It’s great that we can all meet, explain what we are doing and see what others are working on, learn from other institutions, and establish collaboration networks and joint projects to foster transformative research.