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Universidade de Lisboa, Institute of Molecular Medicine AP131

DC-THERA Third Party  
At the end of the 17th century a monarch decided to survey a group of elderly people with the intent of discovering what they considered to be the change that had the most impact on their lives. What the great majority referred were not the wars or the sovereign changes they had witnessed but the introduction of a fireplace in their homes. The fireplace represented an innovation that allowed families to cook and heat their houses without being asphyxiated by the smoke.

More than political occurrences and sports events, people value their welfare, longevity and health. Practically all the changes that contribute to the improvement of our quality of life result from technological innovations that are a direct outcome of advancements obtained at the level of scientific knowledge. But, paradoxically, most people view science as something odd and quite distant from their daily lives - and nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, each new scientific discovery has the potential to invade and change our daily lives - from the food products we choose to the quality of healthcare services available to us. Naming just a few recent examples: satellite communications, cell phones and the Internet, genetically modified foods, genetic testing for hereditary diseases, and new treatments for AIDS and certain types of cancer.

Science and scientists are commonly viewed as belonging to a strange an impenetrable world. Because it is easy to be scared and terrified by something that one does not understand, it is increasingly important to bring scientists closer to society. Only a scientifically informed society can decide, in freedom, about the risks and benefits intrinsic to each innovation offered by scientific and technological progress.

Scientific research and technological development are costly activities. Progress and innovation lack great investments. Traditionally, it is up to governments to finance the pure pursuit of more knowledge, while the private sector primarily invests in projects targeted at developing new products that can be marketed and, therefore, be profitable. But tradition is not what it used to be and, for the sake of progress, the boundaries between fundamental research and applied research are fading away. Nowadays, all great advancements that take place in the majority of scientific areas depend on access to sophisticated technological platforms, in constant development, that derive from applied research projects. On the other hand, it is the knowledge acquired from fundamental research that supplies the necessary foundations for the birth of new applications.

One characteristic intrinsic to fundamental research is its unpredictability. In most cases, the great discoveries that revolutionised scientific knowledge and/or gave rise to important technological innovations, emerged from a research plan that did not, at the outset, foresee the results obtained. The great lesson to be taken from the history of science is that the pursuit of knowledge cannot be prearranged. Thus, it is crucial that investors are made to understand that what is truly important is to support good science and give thematic research freedom to teams of scientists who have proven their excellency and capacity for innovation. Naturally, this concept is extremely difficult to convey to governments and CEO'. For example, in 2000, the President of the United States announced the attribution of 50 million dollars to academic research in the field of prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. This governmental decision was a direct result of the extensive media coverage given to the discovery of a potential vaccine against the disease by the researchers of a private company in San Francisco. It is easy to imagine the contempt of the President's advisors at the idea of using this money to study Portuguese Familial Polyneuropathy (a hereditary neurodegenerative disease that affects several families in the North of Portugal). However, it was in the process of studying this rare disease that the Portuguese researcher Maria João Saraiva discovered one of the basic concepts that inspired the experiments for the development of a vaccine against Alzheimer's disease. Quoting Lewis Thomas, "If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you'd better do this quickly for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come out in its own season, like pure honey".
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Contact Information
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Phone +351 21 799 9411
Fax +351 21 799 9412
Address Unidade de Imunologia Celular, Instituto de Medicina Molecular
Av. Prof. Egas Moniz
P1649-028 Lisboa

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