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Why even weird basic scientists deserve financial grants

Why even weird basic scientists deserve financial grants

Posted September. 08, 2023 08:34,   

Updated September. 08, 2023 08:34


In Kanagawa, Yokohama is a public interest organization named the Ohsumi Frontier Science Foundation. As described on its website, there are three criteria that it provides for researchers to receive research funds: basic science projects that represent insight and originality; are unlikely to be funded by government grants; or cannot be pursued further due to researchers nearing retirement. Simply put, the foundation is interested in supporting any wacky science efforts that seem far from being a lucrative project in the future.

Asked about the three fun criteria, Honorary Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi at Tokyo Institute of Technology, who built the organization in 2018, said in an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo last January, “The aim is to help any scientists who engage in fun projects but financially struggle to seek their scientific dreams. We desire to support anyone who tries new things.” Discontent with how the government selects who qualifies for grants, the founder complained that only promising fields are selectively financed by the government because of their high likelihood of commercial success, adding, “However, this is not how scientific research works. An investment of 10 million yen does not automatically translate into an equivalent worth of cash inflows.”

Professor Ohsumi, a prominent authority on biology in Japan who became the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2016 in recognition of his discovery in autophagy using yeast cells, is among the three Japanese Nobel Prize winners in natural sciences that I interviewed while staying in Tokyo as The Dong-A Ilbo’s correspondent. Their message can be summarized as follows.

First, we should not finance scientific projects merely because they will possibly turn out to be a cash cow. In science, failed attempts also contribute to the pool of scientific knowledge. They are never a waste of resources. Surprisingly, even some Nobel-winning research projects are a result of accidental discovery.

Secondly, investments in basic sciences do not bring immediate outcomes to us but enrich humankind's reservoir of basic knowledge, just as seen in the case of research efforts that unveil the birth of the universe. Indeed, the basic science field comprehensively mirrors a country's capabilities. We need to wait patiently as it sometimes takes a century to realize commercialization.

Thirdly, Japan could rise from the ashes after the Second World War ended in 1945 and later produce Nobel Prize winners thanks to the social consensus on the need to heavily invest in science. Decades-long research projects that then started have given a leg up to the Japanese Nobel Prize winners.

The 2024 budget plan released by the South Korean government last month reminded me of my interviews with the Japanese Nobel-winning scientists. It cut back on funds for research and development and basic research projects by 16.6 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively, compared to this year's levels. Apparently, the government makes a convincing case for fighting against those with vested interests in scientific research funds and aggressively nurturing core strategic technologies. However, this may do more harm than good from a mid-and long-term perspective because the negative impact on national competitiveness will outweigh the benefits of budget saving.

It was as early as the 1970s when Professor Ohsumi dived into studying yeast, which attracted little attention from other scientists of his time. However, many scientists today are interested in autophagy because it can be the key to addressing senile disorders such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. As such, his 50-year basic science efforts have reached the point of possibly producing practical results.

“Which one do you think is more likely to be awarded a Nobel Prize: promising scientific fields that the government heavily invests in or new and interesting fields funded by the Ohsumi Frontier Science Foundation?” Asked this somewhat whimsical question, he gave me a reply - which was not disclosed in the previous article - saying, “It is a tricky question to answer. For me, it took a little money to open up a new field of autophagy. However, many other new projects of various disciplines need some financial aid. Science can never flourish if you exclusively finance projects that just look potentially promising and successful. To increase your chances of receiving a Nobel Prize, you must support basic research efforts that satisfy human intellectual curiosity.”