Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Big Data, Big 'omics-everything....and the sorry state of biomedical research support

People on the federal grant take often speak of 'Big Data' with a nearly lascivious joy.  Big Data is code for biomedical research projects that once begun are too large and costly to terminate, whether or not they did, or do, deliver seriously important truths--truths worthy of their cost.

But when careers depend on it, Big Data and the associated Everything-'omics are as much a fad and ploy for job security for medical school researchers as they have anything to do with science.  Huge open-ended projects need claim nothing that can be rigorously tested, and such fishing expeditions are likely to find at least something that can be blared to the public as major discoveries.  We see it every day, it seems.

One can criticize the Big Hunger for Big Data projects, but they are survival tactics for biomedical researchers, many of whom only get their salaries from external funds, and for those without any actual ideas or means to actually find something profoundly new.  Those 'means' should include freedom from regular bottom-line accountability: hard problems can't be solved on some material-based schedule.  That is because the biological world is complex!

There is, as a rule, not one gene, or even a consistent few genes, that 'cause' traits we care to understand.  Environment--a complex and vague term--interacts with organisms to yield their traits. This is how, via evolutionary processes, we got here in the first place.  Interactions, redundancies, and other complexities have been built into our biology for countless millions of years. Indeed, complexity is protection against vulnerability for survival, and organisms have obviously evolved complexity for that among other reasons (including that redundancy and complexity make room for new innovations to evolve without lethally threatening current systems).  So we should be surprised when we don't find complex redundancy--indeed we have clearly been documenting its universality. And we should stop promising that we'll find the 'genes for' complex traits, like heart disease or obesity etc.

But complexity is not good for the research system
The current research funding system started roughly after WWII, when funds were plentiful and the army of investigators and their staffs and administrators was far smaller.  This is an historical, sociological fact rather than one about the causative nature of the world that we want to understand.

Research used to be much more about solving scientific questions by forming and testing hypotheses, experiment, and so on, than it was about salaries, overhead, and the status of having a Big research group.  But many biological problems are complex--really complex not just as a self-promoting adjective, and to address them should involve patience as well as funding that is stable and doesn't rest on rushing stories to the news media and other means of hyping findings.  Careerism as we see it today is not compatible with this, and the currently gross waste on the fads for Big Fishing Expeditions shows this.

Science today has become pretty much a self-sustaining System, from bureaucrats at all levels to investigators who must sing (i.e., claim Big Results) for their supper.  It sows dishonor and misrepresentation (as well as the occasional desperate scientific fraud).  We all know this but somehow seem powerless to redress things and restore research to the realm of science, where the science is the substance not the window-dressing for fiscal needs as it so often today.  When the system is hyper-competitive, who can afford to confront it?

Things can be changed--even if won't be easy
Reform is never easy, as established conditions are very inertial.  Vested interests, like grant-dependent salaries, must be faded out or even, sometimes, uprooted.  But over recent decades we've clearly allowed those conditions and empires to be built, indeed we often were part of their being built.  But it is time for deep, difficult reform.  We need to fund Big Ideas, Big Efforts at Hard Problems, not just facile sloganized Big Data or 'omics-everything.

But is there the will--and the bravery--for reform?  Where is it, or where can it be nurtured?  The unrest must be stirred to action.

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