Obviously, research funding is run differently in different countries – not only with regard to the amount of money you will be able to get (or the chances that you get any), but also with regard to the scope of fundable projects. I guess that every major country has at least one funding agency responsible for various kinds of biomedical research. In addition, there are several funding opportunities with a more limited scope, e.g. restricted to projects in a particular disease area. As we all know, over a longer time period there is a good chance that research directions stray from the original path. It is interesting to observe what happens when there is the danger of leaving the area deemed acceptable by the funding body.
I have witnessed at least one major conflict of this type myself. Several years ago, I was working at a cancer research institute, which largely depended on money coming from cancer charities and from donations of cancer victims (or their relatives). At this time, there was a lot of high-level research going on at that place, in areas like genetics, cell biology, bioinformatics (I admit to being biased), virology, and others. Over the time, money started to run low, and at one point all PIs saw themselves confronted by a reviewing panel chaired by charity people, former cancer patients and wealthy relatives of cancer victims. Soon it became clear that the number of cancer cures made possible through research at this institute was extremely close to zero. The institute’s publication output, while quite good by national standards, tended to be in journals with words like ‘nature’, ‘science’ and ‘cell’ in the title, while ‘cancer’ titles were clearly underrepresented. Strangely, though, the researchers didn’t even feel bad about it. Finally, the research topics caused many raised eyebrows – several groups were working on yeast, which doesn’t even get cancer !
I should say that I am not taking sides here, the arguments from both groups made perfect sense. The money donors either had their own cancer experiences or at least represented people who had. They expected to get some ‘real’ cancer research for their money, not that basic research stuff that seemed to be going on in the institute. On the other hand, most groups had a quite good justification for what they were doing. The yeast groups were studying cell cycle and DNA damage pathways, which are obviously pertinent to cancer research. Obvious to me, this is, but not necessarily obvious to the charity people who expected to see tumor masses growing on petri dishes – possibly being magically shrunken by some wonder drug (the tumors, not the dishes). I am not totally sure how this discussion ended – I left the institute while the battle was still raging. But when I looked it up recently, I found that most of the yeast groups are still there, so I guess they must have found a solution.
At other places, things seem to be quite different. It happens quite frequently that I see papers acknowledging funds from sources that make me wonder: why the heck are those guys are giving money for this kind of project? It always has been a mystery to me why of all things the US Department of Energy runs its own genome sequencing center. A while ago, I think I read a statement by somebody saying that the DoE plans to exploit strange microorganisms for energy generation or such. However, when I look at their latest sequencing projects, I ask myself who suggested that Xenopus tropicalis or Nematostella vectensis could be useful for that purpose.
Today, I saw an even stranger example. DARPA, the research agency of the US Department of Defense (DoD) seems to be funding a program for identifying and studying the Fundamental Laws of Biology. To give you an impression of what this project is about, here is a quote from their web page:
The initial phase of the Program focuses on identifying key fundamental problems in biology and promising innovative mathematical techniques to approach these problems. Later phases will translate this new mathematical language into testable theories of biological phenomenon with the goal of establishing fundamental, predictive laws of biology.
It is probably hard to go more basic in the way of basic research. I cannot help it, but I find the thought of US defense researchers tackling the ‘fundamental laws of biology’ kind of scary. I also wonder how the scientists convinced the DoD to allocate money for this project from their tight budget, instead of doing useful things like defending homeland security or …. (I deleted several nasty comments here, because I vowed to not talk politics on this blog) . But wait, here is the rationale, right on their web page:
The Program will impact DoD and national security by developing a rational and predictive basis for doing biological research to combat bioterrorism, maintain healthy personnel, and discover new vaccines and medicines.
Ok, this explains everything. Combating bioterrorism and maintaining healthy soldiers through fundamental laws of biology. What a brilliant scheme. But again, there is no doubt about it: a dollar spent on fundamental biology is better than one spent on combating Iraq.
P.S. The project acronym “FunBio” also strikes me as strange in a DoD context.
Note added in proof: Tree of Life blogger and Open Access advocate Jonathan A. Eisen seems to be involved in FunBio, maybe I should ask him about the connection between fundamental laws of biology and national security.