If you haven’t seen this speech by Phil Baran, given at his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it’s worth a look. His main theme is what organic chemists can learn from the business model of SpaceX, and he starts out by talking about how grant money for synthetic organic chemistry has been drying up over the years.
This, he says, is similar to the situation that Elon Musk noted when he wanted to establish human colonies on Mars: NASA had no particularly realistic plans for doing any such thing. So Musk decided to get into spaceflight himself. By building cheaper, more capable launch vehicles, he could win contracts to launch satellites commercially and to resupply the space station, which was something that NASA was spending money on, and these same launch vehicles would also be the necessary foundation for Mars missions. (As Musk himself has put it in interviews, “I would like to die on Mars, although preferably not on impact”).
So here’s where this applies to organic synthesis – Baran has partnered with drug companies for funding, which allows him to make interesting and useful compounds (and develop new methods to do so) while the private sector puts up the money. He’d like to come up with practical synthetic routes to things as complex as Taxol, but NIH funding for that sort of idea is increasingly difficult to get, so this is how the chemistry gets done.
Like going to Mars, such a mission can be hard to fund when a long-term vision is needed, so we turned to the private sector. Teaming up with a large pharmaceutical company, we developed some of the underlying techniques and mission plan we would later need for Taxol by targeting other bioactive terpene natural products that were of interest to them. The graduate students involved in the project were energized to be working on fundamental science with immediate commercialization potential, and the company was thrilled to have a solution to its problem. We are not finished with Taxol; not even close. But by partnering with the private sector, we are light-years closer to our goal than had we relied solely on public funding.
I think that’s an excellent way to look at it, and I’d submit that it’s a rediscovery of something that we seemed to know more about fifty or sixty years ago. Remember Bell Labs, or the Central Research departments at places like DuPont and Bayer? These were an alliance of blue-sky research with commercial potential, and (to my view) are an inside-the-same-organization example of just the sort of alliance that Baran (and Musk) are talking about. This sort of thing has gone brutally out of fashion for companies to do themselves, but the basic idea is still sound: industry can fund basic research, which can in turn throw off ideas and technologies for industry. It’s not like one of them is contaminating the other, or distracting it from what they’re “supposed” to be doing.
And if we’re going to get a lot of basic research done – and there’s plenty needed – then academic researchers are probably going to have to get used to doing some of it this way. Public funding is not going to be there for you when you want it:
Ladies and gentleman, society’s message to scientists is clear: simple curiosity is insufficient justification for our research. Scientists are great at thumping our chests and getting on our soap boxes about the importance of fundamental research. And, we are right. The problem is that nobody is listening. The average taxpayer has no idea what we do and the long-term benefits of basic science. Arguably, the public is more interested in the air pressure of a football than the atmospheric pressure on Mars. Moving forward, in addition to making the most of precious public funding and occasional philanthropy, perhaps we should follow Mr. Musk’s lead and turn to the private sector to help fund our own missions to Mars.
I think it’s long been this way. For example, there’s a myth that the Apollo moon landing program was enthusiastically supported by a majority of the country at the time, but the figures don’t bear that out. And that at least had a clear, concrete goal: I doubt if there’s ever been an enthusiastic majority behind just spending money on basic research to see where things go. I’m sure that polls can generate support for cancer research and the like, but Baran’s right when he says that most people don’t really know what that entails. An average taxpayer might have a vague mental picture of someone in a lab coat staring at a bunch of cancer cells in a dish and trying to find ways to kill them (obligatory XKCD), but the reality of (for example) spending time and money trying to find out what the chaperone proteins for XYZ kinase are under low-oxygen conditions, etc., etc., wouldn’t get nearly as much sympathy or understanding.