Use-inspired basic research is about pursuing fundamental ideas while keeping potential applications in mind.

© A*STAR Research

Basic research for breakthrough solutions

7 May 2021

By addressing technological and societal needs while advancing basic research, scientists can make a profound impact on Singapore and beyond, says A*STAR Deputy Chief Executive (Research), Andy Hor.

The next time you enjoy a cold glass of milk, consider the person who made it possible: a French scientist named Louis Pasteur. But apart from inventing—and lending his name to—the process of pasteurization, Pasteur also made profound contributions to other scientific disciplines. He developed fermentation techniques and a vaccine against anthrax, and even contributed to the birth of the discipline of stereochemistry.

While searching for a way to reduce crystal formation in wine, for example, Pasteur noticed that there were two forms of crystals: a left-handed version and a right-handed version. Intrigued by what he saw under the microscope, Pasteur painstakingly purified both forms of the crystals. His discovery that the crystals rotated light in opposite directions despite having identical chemical compositions led to a fundamentally new understanding of the optical properties of molecules.

Pasteur’s style of research is better known as use-inspired basic research (UIBR), explained A*STAR Deputy Chief Executive (Research), Andy Hor. As its name suggests, UIBR is characterized by its vision: Drawing inspiration from grand challenges while answering the most fundamental questions in science. The end goal is to generate scientific knowledge that paves the way to address societal or economic needs. Because of its emphasis on solving complex, real-world problems, UIBR is a key focus for A*STAR to ensure more robust innovation pipelines for the future. Investments in such projects directly feed into the agency’s goal of driving mission-oriented research that advances scientific discovery and technological innovation, he said.

A*STAR Research recently caught up with Hor to understand how UIBR directly benefits the research community and how it can cement Singapore’s position as a global research and development (R&D) powerhouse.

Q: What is your definition of use-inspired basic research and how is it different from both applied and basic research?

Use-inspired basic research (UIBR) is by definition a subset of basic research, a fundamental approach aimed at better understanding a research subject or phenomenon. It should be novel—whether it’s an original concept or an inventive new methodology—and it should be significant. Many things are novel, but may not be significant. In chemistry, for example, there are millions of molecules; by changing a molecule slightly we can make a new one. But simply making new compounds may not be significant if the fundamental architecture of the original molecule has not changed, or its main properties remain unaltered.

For UIBR, we need to know what the potential applications are. The potential need not be demonstrated today, but over time—perhaps five, ten, or even 15 years down the road—it should become clearer. That is why some corners of the community dismiss the artificial line between basic and applied research; the question is just of quality and the application timeline.

Notwithstanding, we should not underestimate the value of research targeted at providing solutions to current problems—one may call this applied and translational research (ATR). These projects deliver tangible results in a much shorter timeframe, using current knowledge, approaches or technology with innovative adaptations. In A*STAR, we have the capacity to embark on a balanced range of research areas. Our ultimate consideration is quality, outcome and impact.

Q: Why is UIBR one of the priorities for A*STAR?

ATR remains the main thrust for A*STAR to deliver technological outcomes and socio-economic impact, whereas UIBR is the engine for new knowledge that fuels the innovation pipeline. We must provide solutions—both in the present and future—for industries and communities in areas that are important to our research.

UIBR projects in A*STAR are aligned with the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 (RIE2025) plan, which has allocated at least one-third of the overall five-year RIE budget of S$25 billion to basic research. Such research promotes ideation, generates new knowledge, fosters investigator-led research, cultivates collaborations and develops talent. While we advance novel fundamental research, we must not lose sight of the big challenges that often are sources of inspiration for many researchers. These include problems of national or global significance, such as developing new technologies for digital health, advanced therapies for prevalent diseases, reducing carbon emissions or new logistic solutions.

As a science and technology organization, A*STAR is a talent hub for young people to hone their skills in conducting independent research, under the guidance of seasoned researchers in exploring ideas and tackling challenges. Numerous funding schemes are available in A*STAR and the ecosystem is designed to support such endeavors. For example, the A*STAR Central Research Fund award promotes investigator-led science and supports researchers in a full range of research activities. Talent is one of the keys to success in this knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy. It is also best developed in an environment that breeds novelty and values innovation.

Q: Could you share some examples of well-executed UIBR projects?

There are many good examples, one of which is Vitreogel Innovations, started by Xinyi Su of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) and Xian Jun Loh of the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). Xian Jun is a basic polymer scientist who, over time, developed a passion for gels, which are a form of dynamic polymers. He started with basic science, but always kept the applications of that science in mind. He and Xinyi—who is a clinical scientist and an ophthalmologist—came together to solve a problem she faced; namely, finding a suitable substance to replace the vitreous liquid in patients’ eyes after a particular type of surgery. By working together, and via collaborations with colleagues at the National University of Singapore and Singapore Eye Research Institute, they came up with a safe, stable and biodegradable gel that serves as a vitreous substitute.

Other examples include work by Florent Ginhoux of the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) on macrophages and dendritic cells, which could provide insights for therapeutic targets and intervention strategies. Also notable is research by Kui Yao of IMRE on piezoelectric materials as a basis for next-generation ultrasonic sensors and transducers. Many of these researchers publish in top journals, but what sets them apart is that they are always looking for problems to solve.

Q: How will the output of UIBR projects be measured?

We need to make sure that the science that we do is competitive. The quality of UIBR research is typically reflected by their publication in prestigious journals such as Science, Nature and Cell. However, some of them are also seen in more specialized journals such as Physical Review Letters, Advanced Materials and the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Many UIBR researchers also produce patents and different forms of non-academic outputs, such as designs, licenses and technical reports. One distinguishing feature is that UIBR researchers often collaborate with those outside their disciplines, and take a holistic and longer-term view of their research impact. They are therefore more inclined to move their research to its next step and keep challenging themselves with the question of “So what?”. Much of our work with the industry today, from multinational companies like Applied Materials to small- and medium-sized enterprises like MiRXES, can be traced to such UIBR projects.

We, therefore, use a basket of measures to judge their research, including but not limited to journal publications. Focusing on non-academic outputs also helps us gauge the value of the UIBR research to the wider society and economy. Some UIBR projects can quickly generate intellectual property, partnerships, testbeds and prototypes in the course of developing cheaper, newer or better products, but others might stay at the basic arena for a longer gestation period. This is understandable and highly project-dependent. We will ask fundamental questions, like: Where is the new knowledge? What is the novelty? Who will find this useful? What are the collaborative opportunities? Where is the translational potential? How does it change the world? The answers to these questions will often give us a good sense if the work is worth doing.

We understand the dynamics of UIBR—its uncertainty, the inherent risks and the long gestation period. A project could change course along the way, but what should be clear is that every project must be based on good science and aim to create new and important knowledge. Proposals must demonstrate their aspirations and detail how the work can shape how we think, live, work and play. What we don’t want is research for the sake of research, or aimless research.

Q: Apart from academic outputs, how would you measure the success of UIBR?

Some researchers, especially those in basic research, tend to think of publications as the culmination of their research efforts. This may be natural, whether at A*STAR or at other organizations. But I see publications as the starting point, not the destination or target. We must be clever in turning outputs into outcomes, and curating the impact from those outcomes. This can be accomplished if we consistently look beyond papers, patents and licenses, and not be contented with meeting or even exceeding key performance indicators.

My advice would be to seek qualitative assessments of every project we take on, asking how the results help shape the next chapter of the project and what is the impact of the project on people outside the research team. What is particularly exciting in the work? Why would people be interested in our papers and patents? How would that change their lives? Does the published work make a better world for all of us? Returning to UIBR, what exactly is the ‘use,’ and will we be a step closer to that use by the end of the project? This is our goal: To build a culture of novelty, innovation and impact at A*STAR.

Q: How would this culture of novelty, innovation and impact directly benefit the research community in particular, and Singapore as a whole?

We intend to establish a structure and culture where people have a deep interest in creativity, discovery and invention. With that, we can attract the best people, give them the room to roam, and provide them the guidance to succeed. This means understanding the aspirations of individuals and giving them the opportunities to research in areas of their strengths and interest. Every individual must play a role in shaping the research landscape, as well as contribute to organizational advancement and nation building. This is not just about UIBR or ATR, but research across the entire value spectrum. Research doesn’t exist in isolation, for its impact may lie elsewhere. In the vast land of research and innovation, creativity and inventiveness are the centerpieces and where UIBR belongs.

For A*STAR to serve its role well, it needs a good balance of basic and applied research, an effective platform to foster collaboration and translation, as well as a strong research environment and culture for people to create, innovate and realize their aspirations. It is in this context that we support UIBR.

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group