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September 17, 2012

Directed Science, Curiosity-Driven Science, and Striking the Balance

by Jeff F. Miller

It is our pleasure to continue our tradition of hosting a few reflections from the new president of the ASM.

After nearly three months as president and one year as president elect, what amazes me most about the ASM is the breadth and depth of our activities. We literally span the globe, with ambassadors in 54 countries and outreach programs in Africa, South America, and Asia focused on building laboratory capacity for tuberculosis, HIV, and other infectious diseases. The 14 Journals we publish are reinventing themselves to remain vital in an electronic world, and mBio, our newly launched premier publication, scored an impressive impact factor of 5.3, less than two years after publishing its first issue. Our membership numbers are up nearly 2% from last year, with the largest increases in student and international members, and a new tiered structure will make it easier and more attractive to join. The General Meeting has recently undergone a metamorphosis and I am pleased to report that total registration for 2012 was the highest since 2008, with over 9,300 attendees. The Academy of Microbiology continues to examine ways that microbes can positively impact environmental and human health, as exemplified by their recent colloquium on "Designing Drugs that Last", and our Public and Scientific Affairs Board has been working tirelessly to advocate on our behalf to agencies and lawmakers throughout Washington. Their current efforts to lobby against across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, as stipulated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and slated to be enacted on January 2, 2013, are critical for preventing a potentially crippling blow to the nations scientific research enterprise. This is just a small sampling of recent accomplishments and activities and for more information please see our website at It is intended to illustrate the influence and reach of the ASM and its potential for advancing our field, which brings me to the point of this editorial.

As a basic scientist, there are few issues of greater interest or relevance than federal support for research and training. Although we would all embrace major increases in budgets for the NIH, NSF, and other funding agencies, this seems unlikely given the current climate, and maybe a bit naive. There is, however, a "degree of freedom" that deserves to be explored, and it involves not the absolute number of dollars, but how the money is being spent. To pick an example of relevance to many ASM members, the NIH recently released a concept statement for a program designed to build on the Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Program, which will sunset in 2014. The initiative will support multi-investigator, multidisciplinary translational research centers focused on generating, validating, and advancing therapeutics and vaccines, with significant oversight by program officers. This is admittedly an extreme case, but it raises two general issues. The first involves "managed big science," for want of a better term, and the second involves the balance between basic research and applications.

The need for transdisciplinary, multi-investigator programs that tackle big questions in biology is clear and well justified. The breathtaking insights from the Human Microbiome Project provide a beautiful illustration of the central importance of microbes and microbiology, and they would not have been possible without a massively integrated effort. Big science is important but it comes at a significant cost, and it seems reasonable to ask how these efforts should be designed, managed, and balanced to produce the greatest value from our research investment. Requests for proposals involving large teams of investigators and correspondingly large budgets have become commonplace. These are designed by federal agencies with specific goals in mind and they are often highly prescriptive, precisely outlining topics and approaches to be included, and excluded, along with additional requirements and stipulations. Is this the best and most cost-effective way to facilitate collaborative science? Has the approach become too "top-down" and should opportunities be designed to let even better ideas for big science "percolate up" from the research community? What is the optimal balance between targeted research and investigator-initiated inquiry? And perhaps most importantly, are directed approaches the best way to marshal the creativity and innovation required to achieve grand challenges, or do they stifle it?

Returning to the biodefense example cited above, the proposed initiative will focus almost exclusively on applications in the form of therapeutics and vaccines. The importance of applications that benefit society are undeniable, and they are an essential component of the justification for publicly supported basic research. But there is a growing perception in the research community that the pendulum has swung so far in this direction that it places discovery at risk. Curiosity-driven research has and will continue to provide the foundation for future applications, and by extension our ability to innovate and compete as a nation. This issue was recently considered in an editorial by Francis Collins, director of the NIH. His contention that basic research has not been compromised at the expense of translational efforts may engender debate, but his conclusion should not. In it he states that "In this time of severe budget constraints, Americans need to know that today's basic research is the engine that powers tomorrow's therapeutic discoveries... and they need to hear it from all aboard the biomedical research ship." Herein lies the challenge. As any basic scientist that has tried to explain their work to a non-scientific audience knows, it is much easier to articulate the importance of a potential application than to convey the essential nature of pure, unadulterated, curiosity-driven research. But if we don't do it, who will?

Questions regarding the optimal balance between directed science and investigator-initiated inquiry, and applied vs. basic research, are undeniably complex. They impact not only microbiology, but life and biomedical sciences and beyond. As the largest single-life sciences organization in the country, and one that has earned tremendous influence and respect, I submit that the ASM is poised to contribute to this debate in an informed and productive way. In addition to continuing our vital efforts focused on advocating for support for NIH, NSF, CDC, and other agencies, I believe it is time to devote increased attention to understanding how available research dollars are being spent, and to considering how investments can be leveraged to insure that a robust pipeline of basic discoveries will be available to support applications of the future. If done right, our colleagues in Washington will likely pay attention, and they may even follow our advice. It is equally essential to use our communications capabilities to more effectively and broadly convey the importance and excitement of curiosity driven research and how it facilitates translation. Our educational efforts can also be focused on providing students and scientists with the skills to explain what we do and why we do it to non-scientists, in a way that engenders understanding and enthusiasm as opposed to confusion. The ASM has remarkable resources to draw upon and these efforts will benefit from the concerted expertise of our Public and Scientific Affairs Board, Communications and Press, the Academy of Microbiology, our Education and Publications Boards, and other arms of the society. ASM should also explore strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations that have similar goals and synergistic capabilities. In addition to asking for increased research funding, it seems prudent to focus on maximizing the yield from support we already have. The vitality of our field may depend on it.


Jeff F. Miller is Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at UCLA, and President of the American Society for Microbiology. His laboratory studies mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis and the generation of diversity in bacteria and phage. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ASM.


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