Image: Professor Ian Frazer AC, The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute and Institute for Molecular Bioscience
Investing in fundamental research is vital for Australia’s edge in innovation.
Much research is driven by curiosity. This is often thought of inappropriately as ‘blue-sky’ research — the stereotypical scientist in their lab, pursuing their personal interest, with little or no thought to the utility of the outcome.
In reality, curiosity-driven research is generally undertaken because the researcher wants to understand something puzzling about us and our world. The answers to these puzzles can provide huge leaps in knowledge and often lead to translatable research outcomes that have a profound impact on society.
My own research segued from renal medicine to an interest in immunology and pathology, and subsequently into the way the body recognises and responds to genital warts — which are caused by one of the more-than-200 types of human papilloma viruses (HPV).
The last part of the 20th Century saw genomics come of age. Basic, curiosity-driven research into papilloma viruses, and the way these viruses incorporate their genetic information into the DNA of infected cells, led to the discovery that viruses can be responsible for cervical and other cancers.
In 1990, Chinese virologist Dr Jian Zhou and I cloned the genes for the papillomavirus surface proteins and expressed them in cells, using knowledge drawn from decades of work on the smallpox virus.
Some viruses, including HPV, can be difficult to grow in the lab, so instead we used our understanding of the HPV genome to develop a method to encourage HPV proteins to self-assemble into virus-like particles — provoking a host immune response and enabling a vaccine that prevents HPV-associated cervical — and other — cancers.
That vaccine, Gardasil, was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Association in 2006. A year later, Australia became the first country to roll out a national HPV vaccination program.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have now received this vaccine. Research that began with basic science, and benefitted from continuous engagement with basic science, eventually showed both a commercial outcome and a practical benefit: saving lives.
“Research that began with basic science, and benefitted from continuous engagement with basic science, eventually showed both a commercial outcome and a practical benefit: saving lives.”Professor Ian Frazer AC
But basic science is far more than the translatable research outcomes it might enable. It is also the catalyst for significant advances in our social and economic wellbeing.
Fundamental mathematical analysis of signal processing research led to the internet, while basic physics underpins the giant radio telescope arrays now operating in Western Australia. CRISPR research has had a dramatic impact on plant and human biology, and the development of quantum technology has likewise impacted energy production and computer technology. In short, curiosity-driven research happening at university science departments around Australia has delivered significant practical changes in our lives over the last several decades.
Science is not linear: it progresses more like a roller-coaster, in leaps, bounds and loops while keeping the train of human progress on track.
The technologies, engineering and health benefits we will rely on in the next decades will only happen through continued support of the basic ‘blue-sky’ research at Australian universities happening today.