Safeguarding the research spectrum

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Paul Young

In 1963, Greg Bohaker was a 21-year-old RCMP constable in Hopedale, Labrador. 

One day he developed a flu-like illness.  In two weeks, he lost 35 pounds.  The base doctor at the RCMP hospital in Goose Bay thought Greg did, indeed, have the flu.  But his condition worsened and he was sent to Grenfell Mission hospital.  Dr. Tony Paddon immediately diagnosed him with Type 1 diabetes and gave him his first shot of insulin  His body had lost its ability to produce insulin and, therefore, to metabolize sugar.  Greg was shipped to St. John’s, where he stayed in hospital for three weeks, learning to administer insulin to himself by way of injections, before returning to work. This once-deadly disease had been transformed into a controllable condition, allowing a normal life, thanks to basic research.

This story was told to a few of us at the University of Toronto recently by Greg’s daughter, Heidi Bohaker, who is a professor of history at U of T.  Heidi reports that today her father is 71 years old and, despite a little arthritis, is healthy and happy in his retirement.

She also speaks passionately about the work of Nobel Laureates Frederick Banting and John Macleod, and their research assistants Charles Best and biochemist Bertram Collip, whose research at U of T in the early 1920s led to the discovery of insulin as well as the importance of the Connaught Laboratories, which was the first to mass-produce insulin. 

As if that wasn’t enough to support the powerful value of university research, Heidi also says, “Even though my father had not completed high school, he impressed upon both my brother and me the importance that research at universities contributes to society.”

I tell this story to illustrate the idea that you can’t pick winners.  We never know what’s going to happen when rigorous, curiosity-driven research is allowed to unfold organically. When Banting and Best began conducting their experiments, they had no idea where the research would ultimately lead.  They certainly didn’t know that their work would one day be applied to save the lives of millions of people and create an enormous global industry. 

Which reminds me of another Nobel Prize Laureate, Lord George Porter, who is famously quoted as saying that there are two kinds of research: applied and yet-to-be applied.

I don’t want to give the impression that curiosity-driven research is useful only to the extent that it might lead to discoveries that can then be applied to solve a problem. I could cite any number of examples of critical, creative work that is changing our world for the better but that is not in the “applied research” sphere: scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland working to understand the subatomic universe, literary scholars who bring new understanding to the human condition, historians contributing insights about our shared past.

I like to think of scholarship, research and innovation as occurring on a spectrum. Some is exploratory, driven by curiosity in all its forms. Some starts out intending to tackle a specific problem or create a certain outcome. Down the line, some might yield services and products that can be taken to the marketplace.

It’s all valuable work. In tight economic times, it’s important to remember that. It’s human nature to want to solve problems and to support work that has the potential to address social issues, cure diseases, develop new technology and create jobs. I said earlier that it is hard to pick winners. But we can make informed decisions and direct resources toward promising work. We can and should continue doing this and thus enable the discoveries and knowledge creation of today to become the innovations of tomorrow.

But let me quote Professor Bohaker again and what she learned from her father’s experiences with diabetes.  “At times of fiscal restraint and focus on applied research with immediate commercial applications, my father's story reminds me about the importance of universities as places that create the space for big "what if" and "I wonder" questions, like the one Dr. Frederick Banting asked, on a hunch, about the cause of diabetes. Basic research sometimes results in dead ends, but sometimes results in the kinds of remarkable discoveries that makes new and different futures possible, including, I am keenly aware, my own!”

And so, as universities, it’s our role to safeguard and foster the entire spectrum of research.