Landscaping science – now and an example in history

A story appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe on Wednesday reporting that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spending will be cut by 8.2% to help reduce federal deficit.

The scale of the cut might be news, but funds withdrawal from research is definitely not new to the scientific community. After all, that is how scientific work has been landscaped for centuries. Funding dictates the research that gets done, and thereby defines what is ‘important’ or ‘relevant’ and what is not. I believe that there is not a single scientist out there who did not, at some point, have a little pet project that they really wanted to explore but did not have the money to. Who knows how many ideas and how much potential had been buried without even getting a shot at life?

A good example is microbial fuel cell research. Scientists across the world have now started to recognize the potential of microbial fuel cells in wastewater treatment and electricity generation. Down in the sewers, there are two general types of microorganisms. The first type feeds on animal waste for energy and produces electrons as by-products, and the second type takes the electrons and combines them with oxygen for energy.

In 1911, M.C. Potter, a professor of botany, observed that electricity was generated when the microorganisms were placed in an oxygen-deprived environment, effectively killing the second type of microorganisms. As a result, electrical energy can be harvested when the first type of microorganisms are isolated from the second and provided with organic waste matter inside what is termed a microbial fuel cell.

But it was not until the 1980s when the research was picked up again, and in the last five years, development in the field culminated in the building of a commercial prototype at the University of Queensland, Australia. Wastewater from Foster’s Brewery, an Australian beer maker, runs through the 660 gallon microbial fuel cell to produce electricity and clean water.

Wastewater treatment plant. Image obtained from Wikimedia.org
Wastewater treatment plant. Image obtained from Wikimedia.org

I was outraged when I first heard this story. If this discovery had been funded, continued and developed, perhaps the batteries that we use today would be running on waste matter. How could they have missed out on such a good idea? It might be due to the dire living conditions in the past, economic and political instabilities, war and strife. It might be because not enough people foresaw the problems that were to come with over-reliance on fossil fuels and natural freshwater. It might be a result of a general lack of interest in the scientific community stemming from apparent irrelevance to immediate real-world problems back then. It might be a combination of many reasons and we’ll probably never know the exact answer.

The microbial fuel cell story is history, but now with the NIH budget cut, alarms go off in my head. Medical and healthcare research has always been at the forefront of all scientific research, having the most direct, immediate and urgent consequences for the improvement of people’s lives. Funding defines the research fields that are relevant and if one of the most relevant research fields is facing such large cuts, it certainly does not spell well for the rest of the academic research fields.