Philanthropists: If you can’t show us the money, show us some love…

I’ve been spending a little more time than usual following the @realscientists twitter feed this week, partly because the very entertaining @Dr_Mel_Thomson is at the helm, and partly because there’s a vicious rumour running around that I’ll be getting my turn in early July (TBC). In addition to some interesting discussions of footwear, there has been some talk about alternative funding sources that resulted in an interesting tweet:



For people working on cancer research, I’m sure @CureCancerAust helps a lot in terms of $ and c, but if I work on any of many other very interesting and important topics, one would think there’s perhaps little to offer… Or is there?

My response was:


Tweets were too short to elaborate at the time, and I promised a follow-up blog post, so here it is…

Yes @CureCancerAust and other philanthropic organisations, there is something you can do beyond increasing $, and that’s to help us in getting the public to appreciate not just the research you achieve through your own philanthropy, but how that research builds upon, and can only really occur, because of the underpinning basic science research that is funded by that mother-of-all crowd-sourcing schemes — the national tax system of dozens of countries around the world.

See, here’s the rub — modern medical research, be it for cancer, diabetes, alzheimers or jock itch, builds enormously on decades of government funded basic research in everything from molecular biology and chemistry to physics and mathematics. The examples are countless (feel free to add them to the comments here, folks), but let me ping just a few examples that spring immediately to my mind as a device physicist. That MRI machine you use to image tumours, well that machine has a magnet made using superconducting wires that conduct electricity with no resistance — a phenomena arising from basic physics research in the 1900s. And recent work on using tumour-binding quantum dots for cancer diagnostics — well those dots were first made by chemists playing around with the chemistry of cadmium selenide, and the understanding of their remarkable optical properties ultimately comes from fundamental studies of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s. Even more modern developments, such as new methods for electronic DNA sequencing, build on everything from basic research on how electric current flows through nanoscale holes etched into semiconductor wafers to how to do the same thing using biological pores in membranes, and then use that current to distinguish the minute size differences between the bases as DNA is threaded through the pore. This continues even today — even I’m getting involved in projects that might ultimately provide new tools for studying the microscopic dynamics of proteins, thereby opening the path to new understandings of important biological questions.

If we want to keep medical research advances going, and all indications are that the public really strongly support this, then we need to keep the basic science that underpins it going. The only way to do this is to get the public to realise that this basic science gets done in the first place and that we need them to tell their governments to support us.

Traditionally, scientists haven’t tooted their basic science trumpet that much — partly its that we’re modest and we haven’t had to, we’ve had intelligent politicians who realise our value, for example, Sir Robert Menzies, who once famously said: [1]

“One of the great blots on our modern living is the cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause. A world in which a comedian or a beautiful half-wit on the screen can be paid fabulous sums, whilst scientific researchers and discoverers can suffer neglect and starvation, is a world which needs to have its sense of values violently set right.”

Partly, it’s because there’s also been not so much incentive  — until very recently our funding agencies and university promotion committees have valued research output much much more than they value public outreach, thus disincentivising our public engagement. And partly, it’s because modern science is deeply technical, and explaining it to an ever more attention-deficit-disordered public takes great effort, patience and skill.

We need to do it, and do it better, and things like @realscientists is a vital part of this. But we could also use some help, and this is where philanthropic funding agencies could really provide some good in-kind support . These organisations usually have a mailing list that includes donors and other people interested in their work, and they often send out newsletters and other material via these routes. Those newsletters do and should contain all the wonderful things that the research they fund, but they could also talk a little about two other things:

1. The past basic science that underpins some of those discoveries. How it works, why it was done, and how, all these years later, it became relevant to the research the organisation funds.

2. Some current basic science that it’s perhaps not crazy to think might be helpful to the kind of research that organisation might do in the future. This can be hard to pick sometimes, of course, but it matters less what’s chosen and more that its just done in the first place.

And if these are both done in adjacent pages, then people might start to get the message.

These organisations also tend to have considerable lobbying power, including influential links to politicians, people in government departments and NGOs, and, people with money who might be willing to contribute some of it to fund basic research in addition to their contributions to the organization’s more targeted research. This could of course be done by establishing a science fund through something like the Australian Academy of Science that’s open to public donations — see my earlier blog post on this topic.

So in the end, hell yes there’s something that these philanthropic organisations can do for us beyond give us money, and that’s to publically show us some love. There are plenty of outreach engaged scientists who can probably be convinced to contribute articles, particularly in this modern era where outreach is gradually becoming much more valued by funding agencies and universities, and perhaps eventually in a quantifiable way via twists on things like altmetrics. Remember, the funding agencies can control this to some extent; if you incentivise outreach by making it a condition of your funding (and universities their tenure/promotion procedures), then people will do it! Indeed, the funding agencies should really value those strong in outreach, because they can really help in bringing in the funds that in turn get distributed back out to researchers — this contribution is worth its weight in gold.

[1] “The Forgotten People“, Robert Menzies, May 22, 1942.





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