The Value of Basic Research, Part II

This article can be read stand-alone, but is also the second part to the Value of Basic Research article that can be found here

A pharmacist during the 1918 flu pandemic. Photo source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hands up if you’re tired of thinking and reading about pandemics. (Everyone? Don’t worry, I’m with you.) Annoyingly, historical parallels don’t take account of social fatigue and I’m afraid the 1918 Flu Pandemic offers an important lesson for combating climate change. If you can bear with me for just a few facts from one of human history’s most catastrophic and deadliest of crises, I believe it may offer a few insights you haven’t considered before. 

The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 60-100m people around the world — a range that can also be described as the entire population of Germany to the entire population of the United States in that year — and it did so at astonishing speed. The 1918 influenza virus could kill its victims within 24 hours after the onset of symptoms and it spread so quickly across the population that two-thirds of all deaths occurred within six months. Equally notable was that those most vulnerable to the disease were society’s strongest: the majority of deaths were those in their 20’s and 30’s. (1) 

Imagine — a crisis where the population of entire countries is at risk, where time is a luxury no-one has and the youngest are the ones facing the greatest threat.

Can you?

Probably, considering we’re in one.  But I digress. 

One of the many problems for the doctors, nurses and public health officials trying to manage the 1918 Flu was that no-one knew what they were dealing with. For as many doctors who suspected the disease to be influenza, there were as many who said it was plague, dengue fever, cholera or typhus. Even those who suspected it was flu didn’t know what to do with that information because at the time no-one knew what caused flu — the leading hypothesis in 1918 was that flu was caused was a bacterium. (Nope! It’s a virus. And back then, no-one really knew what that was either.)

Public health advice during the 1918 flu pandemic. Photo source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Lack of knowledge about the disease and no consensus on how it spread led to a huge variety in public health and medical intervention in 1918. Some allowed mass gatherings because they didn’t realize the disease spread by air. Some prescribed huge doses of the new ‘wonder drug’ aspirin, which may have worsened mortality rates as overdoses can cause the lungs to fill with fluid (not great when you’re battling a respiratory illness). Armed with a limited scientific understanding of the immune system, cell biology and chemotherapeutics, doctors in 1918 trialed a huge variety of other interventions, too — from arsenic and iodine to bloodletting and cigarette smoke. (1) None of which, with the knowledge we have since accumulated, would be prescribed by a certified health professional today. And with the knowledge we have since accumulated, it may reasonably be assumed that many of those well-meaning treatments did more harm than good. 

For as little as was known about the influenza virus in 1918 and as great the confusion it caused among medical professionals and public health officials, the 1918 pandemic could have been much worse. Thanks to philanthropists and visionary leadership in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, basic biomedical research and training had been accelerating in the years leading up to this crisis. Universities in Germany and the Pasteur Institute in France (founded in 1887) led the way in understanding pathology and the transmission of disease; the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (opened in 1893) followed Europe’s example by prioritizing basic research and catalyzed the training of America’s doctors in aseptic techniques and in how to better contain disease; and the Rockefeller Institute, America’s first biomedical institute (founded in 1901) also dedicated many resources to basic research — including a laboratory solely for the study of viruses. (2) These institutes proved invaluable in the world’s efforts to understand and combat influenza in 1918. Indeed, many of their discoveries underpin our understanding of influenza viruses today.  

Which goes to show that philanthropists have a huge role to play in dictating how a crisis plays out. What they choose to invest in leading up to and during a crisis has an immense influence over the course of human progress and history. Fortunately for the trajectory of modern medicine, Louis Pasteur, Johns Hopkins, J. D. Rockefeller and the others who chose to support basic biomedical research in the past knew that knowledge is fundamental to human progress, to competent intervention and to the design of effective solutions.

Red Cross Volunteers in Boston assembling gauze influenza masks. Photo source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In our current crisis and with the immediacy of its threats, it’s understandable that many people are focusing their energies and support on tangible changes to positively influence the course of climate change – supporting the planting of trees, the installation of more sustainable energy generation and the invention of carbon capturing technologies, for example. And indeed, these are important initiatives! In the same way that in the 1918 flu pandemic, investments in roller bandages and cots made as real a difference to public health as investments in biomedical research did, today the restoration of mangroves and rainforests will bring real benefits in our current crisis, too. But let us not invest in these solutions to the neglect of basic research — which today suffers from a lack of both philanthropic and government funding.* For even in the midst of sea level rise and environmental disasters threatening communities around the world, acquiring more knowledge remains just as essential today for combating a crisis as it was in 1918. 

Learning more about the ocean isn’t just an academic exercise in keeping marine scientists occupied. Our ocean plays an essential role in carbon sequestration, global temperature regulation and, let’s not forget, feeding large swathes of our global population. With an ecosystem so vast, it’s easy to believe that whatever we do to the ocean has very little real-life consequence — the ocean can endure what we put it through, many believe.** But there are plenty of signs to suggest that our ocean is being pushed beyond its limits of endurance. Consider the observation that some ocean currents that oxygenate the ocean and more evenly distribute heat around the planet appear to be slowing, which may be due to falling salinity (thanks to glacier melt) and the ever-greater temperature differential between surface waters and the deep sea. (3, 4) Or that biomass in the ocean has decreased by 2 gigatons (out of ~20), with the largest marine animals – those that play a critical role in healthy ecosystem functioning and carbon sequestration – having seen a 90% reduction in biomass since the 19th century. (5) And all that pollution that we’ve been pouring into the ocean, thinking it would never make an impact? It’s already causing entanglement and a noticeable build-up of toxins in ocean species, shown to reduce the immune system, fertility and lifespan of our ocean’s wildlife. (6, 7) These are realities about our ocean and our impact on it that we’ve only uncovered in recent years – there is still so much about the ocean, its species and their interactions that we do not understand. In order to adequately conserve our ocean’s species, restore habitats or clean it, we need to understand more about it.

Fin whale around Madeira. Photo credit: Rita Ferreira

In the century since the 1918 flu pandemic, our growing knowledge of viruses has enabled us to develop numerous vaccines to protect our population against life-threatening infections and develop public health strategies to contain others. While we are not immune to these pathogens and there will always be new threats that take our medical professionals, public health officials and scientists by surprise, we are much, much better equipped to manage viral infection than we were in 1918 (yes, Covid could’ve been even worse). So let us not forget the philanthropists and other donors who supported basic biological research and the scientists who toiled (and sometimes lost their lives) to build up this knowledge base, enabling us to create the science-backed solutions and policies that we benefit from today. More importantly, in our current crisis, let us not forget the value that basic research will bring to managing and mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss now and in future.

*Today, Sustainability Development Goal 14, Life Below Water, receives the least amount of philanthropic funding of any SDG with just 0.06% of the total worldwide (Economist Impact). And according to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s 2020 report on Global Ocean Science, “Ocean science funding seems remarkably small when compared to many other fields of research and innovation,” with the share of gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) dedicated to ocean science averaging ~1.5% of total GERD, much less than other fields. (UNESCO)

**I’m sure many felt similarly about the atmosphere and look where that got us.


  1. Spinney, Laura. Pale Rider: The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Random House, 2017. 
  2. Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. Penguin Books, 2020.
  3. Ditlevsen, P., Ditlevsen, S. Warning of a forthcoming collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Nat Commun 14, 4254 (2023).
  4. Boers, N. Observation-based early-warning signals for a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 680–688 (2021).
  5. Hatton, I., Heneghan, R., Bar-On, Y., and Galbraith, Eric. (2021). The global ocean size spectrum from bacteria to whales. Science advances. 7, eabh3732. 10.1126/sciadv.abh3732.
  6. Sambolino, A., Iniguez, E., Herrera, I., Kaufmann, M., Dinis, A. and Cordeiro, N. Microplastic ingestion and plastic additive detection in pelagic squid and fish: Implications for bioindicators and plastic tracers in open oceanic food webs. Science of The Total Environment. 894 (2023).
  7. Wenfeng Wang, Jing Ge, Xiangyang Yu. Bioavailability and toxicity of microplastics to fish species: A review. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. 189 (2020).

Further popular reading

About the slowing of ocean currents:

About the role of large marine animals on the carbon cycle:

Related blog articles

About the effect of plastic pollution on marine life: here

About the value of basic research: here

About the real danger of deploying climate change or biodiversity ‘solutions’ in the ocean without sufficient scientific research or impact assessments: here