In 1965, a man named Thomas Brock went to Yellowstone National Park to do some experiments. He was a microbiologist from Indiana University and thought it might be interesting to study how certain bacteria lived among the park’s hot springs. The National Science Foundation had decided to fund the project, and Brock spent years probing the waters and collecting samples.
Soon after the start of the study, Brock and one of his students happened to isolate a bacterium that survived at temperatures around 160 degrees Fahrenheit. They called it Thermus aquaticus and published some papers. Over a decade later, a biochemist named Kary Mullis speculated that the heat-stable enzymes from these bacteria could be used to artificially replicate DNA. The procedure could have limitless applications, from identifying species to diagnosing disease. He tested the concept in a lab and found that it actually worked. His method — polymerase chain reaction — ushered in the age of modern genetics and molecular biology. For his efforts, Mullis was awarded a Nobel Prize.
You may be thinking that this story is an extraordinary occurrence, a rare instance of one scientist’s academic discovery leading to another scientist’s inspired breakthrough. However, this is how science works. Examples of these random successes, these sporadic episodes of luck and discovery, surround us in history: penicillin, Teflon, insulin, artificial sweeteners. They are closer to the rule than the exception. That is both the beauty and the mystery of the scientific method: We often cannot know the importance of our endeavors until we have finished the journey.
Brock’s work is worth remembering today, because many members of Congress are wondering why we waste taxpayer dollars on this kind of research. After all, nothing about bacteria floating around in Yellowstone sounds like cutting-edge stuff, nor does it seem likely to change any of our lives.
Texas Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, recently drafted a bill called the “High Quality Research Act” that seeks to change the way we fund scientific investigation. The legislation would force the National Science Foundation, one of the largest sources for research funding in our country, to follow narrow congressional guidelines for grant approval. For example, to support a specific project, the foundation would have to justify the work as “groundbreaking” and vital to national interests. The agency would be prohibited from approving overlapping research, and Smith has even asked for reports on the peer review process for political oversight.
Despite the fact that their party opposes government regulation, Republicans like Smith seem awfully eager to control the daily activities of our federal research enterprise. These efforts, reminiscent of Bush-era battles over stem cell research, have become a recurring theme of GOP policy. At the start of this year, Republicans protested when President Obama lifted a ban on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on gun violence. In March, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma slipped an amendment into a 600-page appropriations bill to restrict funding for political science research.
But Smith’s proposals, in targeting all aspects of research rather than just political pet issues, set a far more dangerous precedent than these earlier attempts. Smith, a lawyer, seems to believe that Congress can dictate what counts as important in the hazy frontier of scientific inquiry. No one can know for sure which projects will most expand our base of knowledge. The question is how best to deal with these uncertainties. Do we invest in a broad portfolio of ideas and trust the consensus of our leading experts? Or do we submit our future to the political leanings of representatives and the bullet points of legislation?
If we support only brand-name research, we will force scientists into careers they might not have chosen. We will direct our laboratories to simply address HIV and cancer, when their previous work, their strange studies of bacteria in national parks, could have otherwise transformed those diseases. We will fail to capture the accidental advances of the research process. And we will fall behind as other countries pass us by.
I cannot tell you what will be the most significant breakthrough in the next 10 years. Neither can any researcher or politician. Yet, legislating boundaries within which our scientists must operate is surely not the answer to these challenges of fate. Please, Chairman Smith, let science be, and we will all benefit from the innovations that lie ahead.Nathaniel P. Morris is a student at Harvard Medical School.