Panel discusses importance of research

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Dr. Antonio Gonzalez stresses the importance of funding research to promote education at The Importance of Funding Research on Friday afternoon. Gonzalez was one of three panelists at the event put on by Natural Sciences Council.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

As federal research funding faces budget cuts and shifting priorities, some UT faculty have emphasized the importance of maintaining funding for investigative science research.
The National Science Foundation cut its budget almost 1 percent from $6.926 billion in 2010 to $6.859 billion in 2011 but has requested a budget of a $7.767 billion, which would be a 12.1 percent increase from appropriations in 2010.

Such programs have been prioritizing “applied research” to solve specific problems over “basic research” which seeks to investigate phenomena, said biological sciences research educator Antonio Gonzalez. Gonzalez said the USDA has stopped funding research on Arabidopsis plants, which are often used as model organisms in basic plant research, to focus more on crop science research. He said the line typically drawn between basic research and applied research is a false dichotomy.

“It’s very difficult to predict what basic research will yield and when it will yield it,” Gonzalez said. “So you can think of it as some kind of progression or continuum.”

Biology freshman Juan Herrejon, student and faculty chair for the Natural Sciences Council, said the group organized a panel discussion Friday for Natural Sciences Week in response to budget cuts in the past couple of years from federal programs that fund research, such as the USDA and the National Science Foundation.

Herrejon said such cuts threaten the University, which is known for its research.

“At UT, we’re known for being a research institution, and a lot of the stuff that goes on here is basically research-driven,” Herrejon said.

Associate biology professor John Wallingford said basic biological research has helped in past health crises including the emergence of AIDS, SARS and the H1N1 bird flu virus.

“A new epidemic could come along, and there’s going to be a group of people who have been studying this and nobody cared, and Sarah Palin’s mocking them, and they have the answer,” he said.

Wallingford said researchers should make efforts to communicate the potential benefits of their basic research to the public more effectively, especially when taxpayers fund the research.

“Why on earth would you give $100 million of your tax money to me to study frog gastrulation?” Wallingford said. “If instead of saying, ‘I’m very interested in frog gastrulation,’ I say instead, ‘I’m using the animal models [to study] human birth defects,’ then suddenly it makes a little bit more sense.”

Computer science professor Calvin Lin said it’s crucial for government programs and universities to fund basic research because private firms are unlikely to do so because it’s not immediately profitable.

“Short-term research makes money for a company,” Lin said. “Long-term research, if done well, instead will create new companies. It will create new markets. It will create new industries.”

Lin said the creation of new industries, such as the Internet, from long-term research helps create new jobs but that such research can also have psychological benefits.
“Part of what makes us human is this desire to learn more and to make progress,” he said.

Prepharmacy freshman Tania Joakim Jr. said the panel made her think of basic research differently.

“Even though it seems like [basic research] is not doing anything to maybe politicians, it could actually be important in the future,” Joakim said. “It can lead to applied research, so that’s why I disagree with decreasing funds.”