On Dec. 10, my colleagues Jeff Hall and Mike Young and I were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the mechanism that underlies circadian rhythms, or the biological clock, the daily timekeeper that ticks away in most animals.
Since all three of us studied the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, how can our work possibly link to “most animals’’? It turns out that the circadian clock — its genes, proteins, and mechanisms — functions almost identically in fruit flies and humans; moreover, this clock governs much of our physiology. This remarkable conservation reflects the fact that flies and humans are derived from a common ancestor, which lived about 550 million years ago, as well the importance of the circadian clock. In other words, flies are our cousins, which underscores the unity of life and the importance of model organisms for understanding humans. In this light, it is not so surprising this is the fifth Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the humble fruit fly.
Hall and I began our work together at Brandeis in 1982. It took until 1998 for our labs and Young’s at Rockefeller University to achieve some decent understanding of how the circadian clock works. Persistence, hard work, and patience were required to learn something new and significant; patience was also required from our principal funding agencies, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They continued to fund us through lean as well as productive periods. Importantly, they maintained their support of our fruit fly work for many years despite the absence of a link to human clocks until 1997.
Even more patience was required for the 2017 recipients of the Nobel in Physics and their principal funding agency, the National Science Foundation. Those three scientists and their collaborators in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, were supported by the NSF for 50 years before they were able to “see’’ the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein in 1916. This sustained support is all the more remarkable in a field that needed dramatic improvement with no well-established technology for moving forward. Although the risks of failure were significant, so was the possibility of a fundamental breakthrough, according to one of the winners, my Newton neighbor Rainer Weiss. Indeed, his efforts at MIT and LIGO initiated the exciting new field of research of gravitational wave astronomy and is having an impact on other areas of physics like dark matter research.
It is no coincidence that eight of the 10 2017 Nobel laureates in science are American. We all benefited from an enlightened period in the United States. Foreigners were accepted, if not embraced (four of us are immigrants or children of immigrants, including Weiss and me), and federal agencies enthusiastically and generously supported basic research. Although basic research continues to be the essential foundation for progress in more applied areas like drug development in the United States, the current climate in this country is a warning that such support should not be taken for granted.
It may be helpful to think of basic research funding in the context of common life experiences. We all know of people who suffer from serious physical diseases, such as cancer, or who confront mental health issues, including returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. These problems are almost never easy or quick to solve. When a miracle cure such as immunotherapy suddenly appears, it almost always depends on years, if not decades, of basic research. We now take for granted mainstream chemotherapy and antibiotics, but these drugs would not be in our arsenal without the long-term support of research by the federal government. Similar arguments apply to the development of computer hardware, which relied on basic research in quantum mechanics and solid state physics, or the development of software and operating systems, which relied on fundamental work in pure math. There are no end runs around basic research.
To continue to move the country forward and maintain American preeminence in scientific research — including a substantial numbers of Nobel laureates in 2037 — our country needs an increasingly educated, engaged, and supportive public and Congress. They must serve as our advocates and as a counterweight against forces — including, it would seem, the current White House — that are uninterested in, if not hostile to, basic science. We are compromising the longstanding and successful partnership between the federal government and the scientific community at our peril.
Michael Rosbash is a professor of neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Brandeis University.