Fruit flies and a celebration of scientific research

The New Yorker has a wonderful article about the message of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Every year, the Nobel prize committee deliberates about the message they send when they pick one scientist over another. This year’s winners were not on any of the betting lists as most predictions bet on “applied research” that targets a specific, ongoing scientific problems – e.g., curing cancer. In picking this year’s winner, the Nobel committee sent a powerful message about the importance of basic scientific research.

This year’s prize, in other words, is a kind of rebuke. Basic science is under siege, particularly in the United States. Congressional Luddites love to highlight federally funded projects that, according to their own stunted definitions, pursue meaningless questions that don’t readily translate into talking points for a public that is intent on curing cancer or preventing Alzheimer’s disease. It is possible that, in today’s political environment, Hall, Rosbash, and Young would never have received money for their research. After all, do we really need to know what makes a fruit fly tick?

But, as the Nobel committee made clear this morning, the science that informs and occasionally upends our understanding of human health and disease often comes from unexpected places. Ohsumi used yeast cells to explore autophagy, but a similar garbage-disposal system exists in you and me. Similarly, studies of the circadian rhythm in flies have shed light on the genes and proteins that synchronize our own bodies with the day; they may lead to treatments for a wide range of maladies, from jet lag to obesity to heart disease. The joy of science is to learn for learning’s sake; whatever wondrous insights emerge may then be used to address the problems that we confront in our daily lives. The message embedded in today’s Nobel Prize announcement couldn’t come at a better moment—or a more fraught one.

In creative endeavors, we don’t solve always problems by taking the obvious route. Studying fruit flies and yeast cells don’t seem like meaningful questions. Until, of course, they do.

I am thankful to all these incredible researchers who’ve dedicated their lives to helping us understand how the world works. We’ve made more progress in this regard in the last 150 years than we made in all of the past millennia combined. And, the Nobel prizes are a celebration of that.

Congratulations to the winners and to everyone in the scientific community.