When I left research, there was a trend at US government granting agencies (especially the NIH, where most of the money for R&D in biotech comes from) towards giving priority to scientists working on projects that have direct relevance to patients in a clinic. This approach is given a variety of mumbo-jumbo, positive-speak rah-rah names like “Translational Research” or “Benchtop to Bedside”. Generally, it means working on diseases or processes that affect humans instead of working on the basic biology of things like marine snails only found in the South Pacific. This might sound like a sensible priority, but in fact it is a bad idea.
For instance watch this Cone Snail take down this fish:
These cone snails (which are actually a whole group of species) produce powerful toxins to paralyze their prey. At some point in the late 1970s scientists started looking into these snails and guess what – one of these toxins is now approved for use in treating chronic pain. Granted, it has to be delivered directly into the cerebrosinal fluid because it has pretty severe side effects when administered anywhere outside the CNS, but I am pretty sure that these patients are somewhat thankful that someone was given grant money to study the biology of cone snails.
You just can not predict what field these discoveries will come from. The next time you hear a politician like Sarah Palin bemoaning government money being spent to study the biology of some seemingly random insect or spider or frog or bacteria or snail, remember: that politician is likely either uninformed or dishonest or both.
If you have an hour, here is a great lecture on Cone Snails and how their toxins came to be used as pain killers.
Note to self: Conotoxin peptides inhibit AchRs, voltage gated Na channels, K channels, Calcium channels and the video of a snail taking down a fish would wake an A&P class up.
* – not literally. Priority should be given based on how productive a scientist is or group of scientists are. “Productivity” is a big nasty hairball unto itself, but Anthropocentrism and Anthropoblinderism are FAR worse.