How to talk about the impact of basic research

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In this blog, I’m sharing tips on how to talk about the difference that early-stage research makes, without over-hyping.

People donate money to charities because they want to make a difference. And when charities show the impact that the research has made, they ‘give the people what they want’. Medical research charities want to show that their work has led to new drugs, new tests, improvements in care or support. 

However, for the majority of charities, a large part (and sometimes all) of the research they fund is what you call early-stage research or basic research. AMRC data suggests that research charities spend 61% of funding on understanding the underlying biology of how diseases develop.

Why is it difficult to talk about early-stage research?

Basic research is the stereotypical image of science, with lab coats, Petri dishes and test tubes. But I think there are three problems which makes it more difficult to communicate the impact of discoveries made in early-stage research. Maybe you can identify one or more of these problems in a research project you’re familiar with:

  1. The discovery is unrelatable to patient experience – they’re about molecules, proteins, genes, rather than patients and treatments 
  2. The discovery is difficult to understand – they might need specialist scientific knowledge to fully appreciate
  3. Early-stage research is a long way from benefiting patients – the results might not lead to a drug (for example) for 10-20 years or more, if at all. 

In other words, the discoveries made from basic research are sometimes exactly the opposite of what we’d like to communicate with supporters and patients. 

How do we get around this? Are there ways to communicate the impact of early-stage research, without over-hyping?

It’s difficult, but I think there are ways to do this. Here’s a few thoughts.

Tips for communicating the impact of early-stage research


Take a step back from the findings of specific research projects, and look broadly at how you’re communicating this type of early-stage research. Are you finding you’re a bit defensive about it? Trying to apologise about it? Or even worse, trying to hide it, or over-hype it in some way?

An alternative approach is to find a positive way to talk about basic research your charity funds. Something that enables you to shout loud and proud about the importance of this work, and that supporters can get behind as much as flashy clinical trials. 

One example of this is from Worldwide Cancer Research. The charity only funds early-stage cancer research. But they describe it on their ‘What we do’ page: “We help scientists kickstart cures”. 

I love that idea. It’s not defensive. It’s proud. Reinforcing this message, they state: “The first step is the most important one” – a simple idea that everyone can understand. They ask people to “support the groundbreaking discoveries of tomorrow, today.”

Imagine other ways that this could be done:

  • The language used around the research. Compare something like ‘basic’ or ‘early-stage’ research, with ‘fundamental’ or ‘discovery’ research. The last two sound more positive. 
  • ‘Filling the gaps’ in knowledge. Make clear how basic research is crucial to solving intractable clinical problems.
  • ‘Pump priming’. Explain how smaller pots of money for pilot studies allow researchers to test ideas and generate data, which can leverage bigger grants. 
  • Explain the history of treatments today. They almost certainly started as a discovery in the lab. The knowledge we take for granted was probably generated through early-stage research. 

Thinking about your overarching messaging is a long-term strategy and hard work, but it can pay off. Getting those messages clear will make your life easier when it comes to explaining the impact of specific discoveries. 

Get the researchers’ perspective

Speaking to researchers supported by your charity can help identify how best to talk about early-stage research, as well as specific discoveries with which they’ve been involved.

When it comes to projects, ask them to explain it in terms that people will understand. Maybe not just in terms of drugs and tests, but what the work has enabled them or others to do.  For example, did it change the way that people thought about the condition? Has the work led to a new clinical trial or collaboration? Has a simple idea opened up a new area of research?

More generally, ask researchers what the funding for early stage research means to them. What does that funding provide that they can’t get elsewhere? Why is so important that the charity’s supporters get behind this kind of work?

Provide the context

You should always be providing the context of your research. But it is even more important for early-stage research, where the significance of the immediate findings can sometimes be unclear. 

One way describe early-stage research might be that it’s ‘adding a piece to a puzzle’. That’s ok, but you can go further. Be specific. If this is a small piece of the puzzle, what is the finished puzzle going to look like? What’s the ultimate goal? How has this research contributed to towards that? 

What could this work lead to?

Even if a research discovery hasn’t been translated into something tangible that the public understands, it doesn’t mean it won’t. What will this discovery lead to in the future?

I’ll admit this can be difficult. Certain types of basic research are at such an early stage; it’s impossible to say where it’ll go. Again, it’s worth speaking to the researchers involved to get a handle on this, and the possibilities ahead.

Consider relating the impact to other outcomes aside from new drugs or tests. It might be that trying to contort the findings to try and predict a new drug comes across as very tenuous. But could you relate the findings in a different way, something more immediate? 

There are some more ideas in this blog post about communicating ‘failed’ research.

Fundamental research can sometimes benefit patients

Don’t forget that because research is happening in the lab, doesn’t mean that it’s decades away from patient benefit. 

A lot of research ‘ping-pongs’ between clinical and lab-based researchers. For example, a clinical trial might test a new drug, but finds that it benefits only a small subgroup of patients. The work goes back to the lab to figure out why that’s the case, which then leads to a new clinical trial, to test a combination of treatments in a smaller group of patients, and so on. 

Ultimately, lab-based research isn’t “worse” than clinical research – both are needed, and many research teams do both. Speak to your charity’s researchers to understand what collaborations have come out of their basic research discoveries. 

Understand the significance

Even fundamental research can provide significant breakthroughs, even if it is a while off benefiting patients. 

Think of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 by scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider. Is there any research more ‘fundamental’ than particle physics? And yet it was headline news, described by scientists as a “historic milestone”. Even though, for the vast majority of people, it hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference to their lives. 

For your charity, people need to know how a research project will benefit patients – that’s what they expect and donate money to your charity. But even if it is a long way off benefiting patients, if it’s a major breakthrough and worth shouting about, then shout about it! 

Another example is the creation of a ‘breast cancer gene map’ in 2016. It was a significant piece of work, and this blog post I wrote for Breast Cancer Now gets that across. Still, it’ll take a while for the findings to fully translate into tangible benefits for people affected by breast cancer. 

Again, speak to the researchers involved in the research (and maybe others who weren’t) to get their view on whether the discovery is a small step or giant leap in knowledge.  

Be honest

Overhyping is not helpful to anyone, but sadly, it’s pretty common. Sadly, it raises false hopes for patients. And long-term, it makes people jaded and cynical towards your charity, and towards research in general. Not a great move. 

Wherever possible, try to be as clear and honest as possible about how far away something is from benefiting patients. 

In fact, when trying to communicate the impact of a research discovery, you should always try to keep in mind someone who is living with the condition / illness your charity focusses on. What would that person take from how you’re communicating this work? Would they understand what stage the research is at? Or would they expect to be able to call up their doctor to try and get access? 

How do you talk about the impact of basic research your charity has funded? Do you have any great examples to share? I’d love to hear from you – email me or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

(Image of Large Hadron Collider by Maximilien Brice, shared under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 4.0 )

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