Some scientists devote their careers to the understanding of the natural world -- that is, they engage in “basic research”. Physicists may want to understand how matter and forces interact and to describe the fundamental laws that govern their interactions. Biomedical scientists may want to understand how is that cells work, how they develop to form entire organisms, how they communicate and defend themselves from disease.
It is the answers to these questions constitutes our understanding of Nature. It is the organization of these answers into theories and mathematical models what provides the driving force behind all technological and medical advances. In other words, “basic science” is really “fundamental science” — it is the science at the heart of human knowledge.
Without basic science, there would be no translational or applied science. There would be nothing to apply; nothing to translate.
As the general public, scientists and our institutions also recognize that not all basic research carries the same ethical baggage. The claim by Dr. Greek that basic biomedical research with animals has no explicit goals, that it is only performed “out of curiosity”, could not be farther for the truth.
The National Institutes of Health and its institutes have charted the way forward in various fields (including neuroscience), identifying specific topics of research that show exceptional promise and offer hope for new breakthroughs. Investigators, guided in part by these research blueprints, submit their proposals to NIH panels that evaluate and rank them according to their significance, merit and promise. This is a process that is highly competitive, where only about 20% of the top proposals have a chance of getting funded. It is a process where scientists have to explain in detail the specific aims of their research, their significance and how the results of the experiments will help move the field forward in some important way. When it comes to basic research using animals, there must be a very good justification for the work, the species and number of animals used. Mere curiosity is not a good justification.
I agree that nobody can “promise” that any particular line of research is guaranteed to yield cures. Such a promise would amount to knowing, ahead of time, the outcome of an experiment. Instead, what is self-evident to most scientists is that without the ability to use animals in some areas of medical research we are guaranteed to fail.
This is a message the public is starting to hear loud and clear from scientists, veterinarians, animal technicians and the leadership at NIH.