Expanding horizons in the life and health sciences, and improving our understanding of biological phenomena, fundamental research is first and foremost a source of knowledge. The results of this exploratory research can be hard to predict, but it can also be particularly effective in revealing the totally novel concepts that are the drivers of progress and innovation.
The main objective of fundamental research is to produce knowledge and understanding in relation to natural phenomena. In the life and health sciences the particular focus is on deciphering the mechanisms of life, and understanding not just the functioning of the human body, but also that of organisms and any other entity with which it interacts.
Experimenting to understand
This exploratory research relies on the curiosity and creativity of researchers. Taking their departure from available knowledge and their own observations, scientists develop questions and hypotheses concerning the mysteries that still remain. To test these hypotheses, they develop experiments that will lead them to generate new data.
The results of such research are hard to predict, and researchers will not always find an answer to their original question. But they sometimes discover things that help answer other questions, or may even come across totally unexpected new phenomena!
In all cases, fundamental research contributes to the growth of knowledge.
From Fundamental Research to Innovation and Progress
When seeking innovation, it is always possible to improve upon what already exists. But the most significant progress is most often based on discoveries generated by fundamental research:
Without studies on basic immunological mechanisms, immunotherapy would never have been possible. And yet this therapeutic approach has been a game changer in the management of certain cancers. Another example is provided by MRI: a medical imaging technique now in frequent use that was developed as a result of fundamental and theoretical work on nuclear magnetic resonance.
There are many more such examples, and at the end of the day the boundary between fundamental and applied research is rather porous: not only does the former feed the latter, but the technological advances produced by applied research have become a crucial part of successful fundamental research.
"Scientific research is both a creative approach to knowledge, motivated by pure curiosity, and an innovation-generating activity that expands methods of action and diagnosis among humans, nature, and society. These two aspects of research, the fundamental and the applied, complement rather than oppose one another. Fundamental research creates the knowledge base from which applications are born and, in return, technological advances provide increasingly sophisticated tools of investigation that further deepen our fundamental knowledge."
Serge Haroche, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2012
Source: Letter no. 12 from the Inserm Scientific Advisory Board
Inserm and Fundamental Research
Fundamental research concerning questions of human health is one of Inserm’s key defining activities. This research holds a prominent place in the research units, and fundamental approaches are widely supported at Inserm.
This support is reflected both in its cross-cutting programs, and the studies carried out within the research component of the French National Health Plans. More generally, Inserm supports studies that bring together fundamental approaches carried out at a molecular and cellular level, tissue and organ level, and body or even population level.
Nearly 40% of research publications produced by Institute researchers are based on fundamental research (with the remaining 60% reporting medical research).