All scientific research conducted at medical schools and teaching hospitals ultimately aims to improve health and ability. Basic science research—often called fundamental or bench research—provides the foundation of knowledge for the applied science that follows. This type of research encompasses familiar scientific disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, and pharmacology, and their interplay, and involves laboratory studies with cell cultures, animal studies or physiological experiments. Basic science also increasingly extends to behavioral and social sciences as well, which have no less profound relevance for medicine and health.
Basic research can address clinical issues from a reductionist approach, including the discovery and analysis of single genes or genetic markers of diseases, or sequencing and manipulating genes. Typically, basic science research focuses on determining the causal mechanisms behind the functioning of the human body in health and illness, and utilizes hypothesis-driven experimental designs that can be specifically tested and revised. More recently, “systems biology” has focused on understanding how complex systems arise from elemental processes. Once these fundamental principles of the biologic processes are understood, these discoveries can be applied or translated into direct application to patient care.
In the absence of information and insights generated from basic research, it is difficult to envision how future advancement in treatment of disease and disability will occur; physicians would increasingly be in the position of mechanics who do not know how engines work, or programmers who do not understand how computers store and compile information. Basic research is also a source for new tools, models, and techniques (e.g., knockout mice, functional magnetic resonance imaging, etc.) that revolutionize research and development beyond the disciplines that give rise to them.
Federal Support for Medical Research and AAMC’s Role
The AAMC advocates for basic research, as part of the continuum from laboratory-based science to clinical and translational investigation to studies in and with communities and whole populations. The Association strongly supports the work of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American people’s leading organization in support of basic as well as general health research, reflected in the NIH mission statement:
To seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.
We also support the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other agencies and organizations that sponsor or conduct medical research.
In addition to advocacy, the AAMC also provides analysis and advice on development of policies and regulations that guide basic and other research. The peer review (or merit review) is one example of a critically important system necessary for supporting the research enterprise. AAMC also examines federal and institutional policies promoting team science (increasingly important to research across the continuum) and the advancement and promotion of individual scientists working collaboratively within teams. We also support professional development programs for senior leaders of research programs at medical schools and teaching hospitals, and for those who guide training and career development of new scientists.