Gained in translation: Bridging the gap between curiosity and applied research

3 min readJun 23, 2023

At The Sainsbury Lab, merging fundamental and applied research has led to unexpected discoveries and real-world impacts. The “Gained in Translation” concept highlights the value of open-ended, problem-solving research.

This week, as I attended #TRIC23 the ‘Translational Research in Crops’ conference organized by VIB in Ghent, Belgium, I was reminded of the “Gained in Translation” concept that has shaped our research ethos at The Sainsbury Lab (TSL).

Roughly a decade ago, we launched the TSL+ concept. This initiative encourages lab leaders to move beyond pure curiosity-driven research and to delve into problem-solving, application-oriented studies. One of my slides encapsulating this philosophy sparked intriguing conversations at the conference. Today, it’s fair to say that this merger of fundamental and applied research under a single roof has been a resounding success. It has not only enriched our research portfolio but also broadened the range of our discoveries.

The TSL+ concept. Many thanks to @MaizeZynskiHI for the tweet.

Building on the success of the TSL+ concept, we recently initiated TSL-Ventures. This incubator program supports young entrepreneurs in turning research discoveries into spinout companies. While this may seem like a logical step to many, it’s surprising how institutions can resist the integration of applied research, often insisting they are strictly basic research institutions. Some may even shy away from protecting their intellectual property for fear of tarnishing their reputation for basic science. Go figure.

Roberto and Jose, Entrepreneurs-In-Residence at The Sainsbury Lab.

An enlightening coffee-break discussion with Deyang Xu, a dynamic early-career researcher from Copenhagen, resonated with my sentiments. Throughout his career, Deyang has encountered a reluctance to engage in research, irrespective of its importance, that strays from the so-called fundamental science. We both find this odd. Most discoveries are serendipitous anyway, so why the obsession over this basic vs applied dichotomy?

Gained in translation. A coffee-break chat with Deyang Xu.

This segues well into the “Gained in Translation” concept. Nobel laureate Barry Marshall once said about his study on Helicobacter pylori, “You don’t know where you’ll end up. You don’t know what you’ll cure…” True indeed, in science, our initial research often uncovers solutions to unforeseen problems. Conversely, projects with applied goals or collaborations with those who have them can lead to unexpected discoveries, real-world impact, or simply enrich our basic understanding of the studied system. Often, they reveal knowledge gaps, triggering further research questions.

Of course, it’s vital to continue exploring basic mechanisms and pathways. However, despite undeniable successes in advancing knowledge, most research is still confined to the laboratory, with few having a tangible impact on society. Only a select few can point to a crop grown on a farm or a drug used in a hospital and claim that the gene, technology, or concept underpinning the product originated from their lab.

However, I sense a shift in the tide, particularly in plant biology. Our basic understanding has matured, coalescing around robust principles. Technological advancements are ushering in fresh opportunities. The bridge between curiosity and applied research is becoming stronger, transforming what we gain in translation. Stay tuned as we continue to explore this fascinating intersection.


This post was written with assistance from ChatGPT.

This article is available on a CC-BY license via Zenodo. Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2023) Gained in translation: Bridging the gap between curiosity and applied research.




Biologist; passionate about science, plant pathogens, genomics, and evolution; open science advocate; loves travel, food, and sports; nomad and hunter-gatherer.