Getting the most out of basic research

Posted on Thursday, January 6, 2022

Author: Dr. Rees Kassen

Professor, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, uOttawa
Core Member, ISSP

On November 25, 2021, the ISSP hosted a panel entitled Mission-Driven Research and Innovation to Address Grand Challenges: Does Canada have what it takes? at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks.

Mission-driven research offers a tremendous opportunity to support the socio-economic development of a country like Canada. I offer three important considerations that will be key to maximizing Canada’s return on investment from a mission-driven approach: Don't forget about basic research; don’t forget we live in an international community; and don’t forget about the importance of collaboration and co-creation.

First, the basic-mission driven dichotomy is a false one; both are necessary for successful missions. I would point to the value of basic research in vaccine delivery and evolutionary biology that has been key to navigating this pandemic. Evolution is driving this pandemic, from the initial genetic changes that allowed the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spill over from animals into humans to the continuing emergence of variants of concern like Delta and Omicron. We have been studying these same evolutionary processes in our lab, through basic, Darwin-esque research on the origins of adaptation and biodiversity in microbial populations evolving in test tubes. As the pandemic unfolded, it became clear that this rather marginal subdiscipline focusing on the most foundational questions in biology was thrust forward to the coalface in the battle against the virus.

I’d further point out that most researchers at Canadian universities would probably put themselves and their research in the use-inspired category below.

(Figure courtesy of Jeff Kinder)


Almost all of us at one point or another take on a line of research because of some real-world challenge. Two years ago, I began thinking think about the challenge of dealing with antimicrobial resistance and how it spreads around a city or region, which led me to ask whether we have good evolutionary models for this process. It turns out that we didn’t, which inspired a whole new line of foundational research in my lab alongside a more mission-driven approach to track SARS-CoV-2 in the built environment. We shouldn’t assume that all researchers based at universities just want to be left alone or have no interest in contributing to mission-based research. We absolutely do.

Second, don't forget about international collaboration. I have been working with colleagues at the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Scientific Collaboration on barriers and enablers to international scientific collaboration. Our preliminary analyses show the more a country invests in R&D domestically as a fraction of GDP, the smaller the fraction of its research output are international collaborations. The message to take from this, I think, is that addressing grand challenges that are international in scope demands deliberate, focused attention. Simply upping investments in domestic R&D is unlikely on its own to provide the capacity needed to address international research challenges like emerging pathogens, antibiotic resistance, or climate change.

There are real challenges to funders, policy-makers, and researchers in rallying the community around a particular mission. Our work at the WEF has underscored the importance of trust, especially internationally. The World Values Survey has been issued to 1000 people in each of 80 or so countries over the last 20 years, and it asks respondents whether other nationalities be trusted. If we plot the data from those that respond “completely” or “somewhat” against the fraction of international co-authorships as a percent of total publications, you see a positive relationship. A similar relationship can be seen when we relate a country’s progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and trust. Trust among international collaborators is integral to advancing the kind of international scientific collaboration necessary to deal with the grandest challenges of our times.  

Last is the importance of collaboration and cooperation. This is not unfamiliar territory to most of us, but it bears repeating. Collaboration among researchers in the natural sciences, engineering, health care, social scientists and humanities is essential to achieving an effective mission-driven approach. Engaging early career researchers, who are among the most creative thinkers and are often agnostic to disciplinary boundaries, is also key, not to mention effective engagement with partner organizations outside the academy. Again, trust is key here, as it is for international collaboration. But it takes time to develop trust, especially among actors that have not previously worked closely together.

There is a lesson here for governments and funding agencies where calls for proposals often demand established, sophisticated partnerships to be in place before a proposal ever gets funded. How many outstanding ideas and initiatives are lost because the time frame for putting the application together is so compressed that the hard work of building trust and establishing productive partnerships can’t be done?

If we are serious about working collaboratively across disciplines and sectors of society, we need to find a better way to cultivate strong partnerships. The idea of co-laboratories and co-creation is really important to mission-driven research. The funding agencies want to catalyze missions or research into particular areas, and the researchers want to do their research. I suspect there is a sweet spot at the intersection where new ideas about how to drive a mission that brings together all dimensions of the research community, from policy-makers and funders through to researchers, to catalyze the best research to deliver the answers and innovations we need.

Back to top