Is Translational Research a Threat to Scientific Discovery

September 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm Leave a comment

By now, most of us have been (over)exposed to the concept of translational research. Our departmental heads have reminded us that in order to obtain or retain research funding, our basic science research needs to be connected to some type of predictable and practical future application. Projects aimed at further understanding biological mechanisms without being readily connected to a predictable biotechnological application are cast aside to make room for more “practical” scientific research. While such practice may seem sensible, Dr. Jim Woodget from the Lunenfeld Institute suggests that such actions are actually harming the future of scientific discovery.

In an article titled “The (blue) sky’s the limit,” Dr. Woodget postulates that designing basic science experiments with a practical end-goal in mind is counter-intuitive to the way that basic science operates. In Dr. Woodget’s words, in the world of basic science

relevance is an incredibly poor predictor of original discovery


In fact, many scientific breakthroughs happen quite by chance, without any practical relevance or socioeconomic benefit readily apparent. According to Woodget, major discoveries are often stumbled upon while asking completely distinct questions and their significance is not fully appreciated by their discoverer. In Woodget’s opinion, basic scientists would perform a more beneficial contribution to society if they were given unrestricted freedom to operate and not have the direction of their research dictated by granting agencies more interested in the next biotechnological breakthrough than furthering the body of scientific knowledge.

I believe that Dr. Woodget has presented a very strong argument for rethinking the way we evaluate scientific contribution, and I believe that as scientists, it is our job to educate the public (who directly influence government spending) on the importance of unfettered scientific discovery.

What are your thoughts?

Entry filed under: Grants, Of Interest. Tags: .

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