The value of public funding for “basic” versus “applied” research has long been questioned. To address this debate, the authors of a recent report in Science performed a large-scale evaluation of the value of public investment in biomedical research. After analyzing the relationship between the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and private patents, they found that distinguishing research as basic or applied is not useful in determining the productivity of grant funding.
The $30 billion annual budget of the NIH makes it the largest source of life science funding in the world and provides a third of all US biomedical research and development. Although there has long been a strong argument for public investment in scientific research, attacks on the tangible benefits of this research persist. In particular, some opponents argue that “basic” research is too far removed from practical applications to be worthy of investment.
To quantify the effects of NIH funding for basic versus applied research, the authors looked at data from 365,380 grants awarded between 1980–2007 and compared their direct and indirect influence on patent filed. In particular, they decided to use patent-article citations as a measure of the influence of publicly funded science on commercial developments.
The researchers determined two ways in which research funded by the NIH could impact patenting; patents could be filed by the NIH-funded scientists or by private entities that cited research funded by NIH grants. This study found that roughly 10% of NIH grants were directly responsible for a patent while nearly a third of NIH grants had an indirect influence on patents. This indirect influence was attributed to articles associated with grant research that were later cited by a patent.
Delving deeper into the data, the authors found a similar pattern when looking at drugs brought to market that were associated with NIH grants; less than 1% of grants were directly linked to a patent associated with a drug, while 5% resulted in a publication cited by a patent for a drug. Despite public policies like the Bayh-Dole Act, that encourage academic researchers to file their own patents, the traditional route of applying public research to private patents continues to predominate.
For those that question the value of basic research and aim to steer public policy toward supporting applied research, this report makes a strong case against this way of thinking. The findings also suggest that using direct generation of patents as a metric for the return on investment of publicly funded biomedical research is not very useful since most of the effects of NIH research appear to be indirect.
In fact, the authors posit that basic research is just as productive as applied research in terms of patenting since the amount of grant research cited by private patents is much greater than the number of grants directly associated with patents. Perhaps it is time policy makers consider studies like this and forgo disseminating grant funds based on whether research is basic or applied.