The Plague-Ground – In Defence of Curiosity

In the rush to find a vaccine, let’s not forget the rush to find whatever your curiosity leads you to.

It’s easy to think one rush is urgent, while the other seems trivial, almost insultingly so these days. But the fact is, basic research (“I wonder where this takes me…?”) and applied research (“Find the vaccine, fast!”) are two parts of the same quest. Each needs the other. But when you stuff one and starve the other, the entire pipeline of new discoveries will eventually run dry.

This argument is rarely popular. Governments, companies and philanthropists who fund medical research especially… want results! Today, curiosity-driven research is viewed as a luxury the world has no time for.

But back in 1957, a Bay Street investment dealer, James A. Gairdner, decided to do something unheard of for the times and especially for a Canadian.

He set up a foundation to reward the world’s top scientists for medical discoveries that were curiosity-driven. So, not “What’s the cure for cancer?” But more like: “What are the mechanisms that cause cancers in the first place?”

Today, the Canada Gairdner Awards are one of the premier prizes in the world of science, and one in four Gairdner awardees goes on to win the Nobel Prize. Among its winners is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who won in 2016 for his pioneering work on HIV infections.

Each October for the past 60 years, the Gairdner Foundation has hosted a gala to celebrate that year’s awardees (usually seven of them in different categories with each one receiving $100,000). At that gala are not just Canada’s top leaders in healthcare, research and medicine, but the world’s. Among them is a handful of Nobel Laureates who come back each year because the three days of Gairdner academic and public lectures is a concentrated way to stay on top of the latest advances in basic research.

Yesterday, the Gairdners announced that, for the first time in its history, the annual gala would not be held. At least, not in person and certainly not ‘moistly’.

In fact, all the Gairdner events will go online, including a panel of Gairdner laureates in May on how to beat COVID-19.

What will stay in place is the Gairdner’s commitment to celebrating the kind of science that rarely draws headlines, but that’s often the basis for discoveries that do.

Over the years, Gairdner winners have made the breakthroughs that led to the discovery of DNA, of gene editing, insulin, the cause and cure for stomach ulcers and the development of CT scanners. Their work is behind so much we take for granted, like cholesterol-controlling statin drugs used by more than 200 million people worldwide, and HPV vaccines that have the potential to prevent thousands of cases of cervical cancer.

Today in the US alone, 21 different companies are scrambling to discover a vaccine that will inoculate us all against COVID-19. And two days ago, Fortune reported that China has more leading vaccine candidates than any other country.

So the race is on.

I’m willing to bet that whoever does come up with that vaccine will owe a debt of gratitude to a Gairdner awardee whose work carries the banner for the kind of science that can really save us today – and beyond.

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7 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – In Defence of Curiosity”

  1. Great writing and interesting thoughts. The scientific world will be pressed. I am now wearing a very fancy cloth mask, that a friend made. Not sure it helps. Walking lots. Love Jane

  2. Sheila Robinson

    George and I have been enjoying your blogs very much, but I felt I had to write to you about this one in particular. Curiosity driven research, I recall many conversations about it with many different people. How exciting those days were. Best, Sheila

    1. Sheila – Great to hear from you ! As it turns out, Ann Kerwin mentioned you in an e-mail yesterday about the Gairdners.
      You and I were lucky to hear those pure research conversations first-hand!

      Cheers and thanks for checking in.


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