Friday, January 8, 2010

2020 visions, or 20-20 hindsight?

For an article in Nature this week ("2020 Visions"), a number of "leading researchers and policy-makers" were asked to comment on what their field is going to look like in ten years. "We invited them to identify the key questions their disciplines face, the major roadblocks and the pressing next steps."

Well, Nature is a commercial operation, not as unlike, say, People Magazine, as it may wish to be viewed as, and it often looks like it, too. As it does here, since only incremental science can even generally be predicted (for example, that the price of whole-genome DNA sequencing will drop dramatically, and that as a consequence we'll all be hungering to do it in almost any kind of study, whether justified or not). So, this article is essentially free advertising for the respondents. The futuristic bravado is limited, as in a way it must be. But let's suspend our disbelief and see if we can go with their premise for a minute.

The respondents include a university president, an astronomer, a chemist, a paleontologist, a computer scientist, someone from the NIH, a geneticist and so on. We aren't qualified to comment on the specifics of Google's director of research's vision of the future, but we can say, in general, that this is an odd exercise, as prognostication generally turns out to be a wish-list in disguise (right, we can't even go with the premise for a whole minute!). So, prognosticators on the future of personalized medicine, say, are advocating for their own view of the future. Or rather, of the present. One interviewee comments about how rare genetic variation will be found to have much more predictive power for disease than common variants--exactly what one might expect given the failure of 'common' variants to solve all the world's problems, and the next level of ramped-up DNA-variation-based promises that have been growing in recent years, not coincidentally nor disinterestedly along with the technologies being sold for ever-cheaper whole-genome sequences. This is essentially rationalizing for more of the same, since although there may be new findings for disorders with clearly known causal genes, generally rare variants will be very difficult to assign causal effect to (for example, suppose it's only seen in one patient?). So rare variants will not be very useful in public health terms, yet public health funds are going to be demanded for this work. We have to assume that the leading experts in the areas we know a lot less about are doing the same kind of nest-feathering.

Of course, any scientists can each be expected to be excited about, and to want to promote, their own field of interest. If we didn't think it important, it would be depressing to go to work every day. And these days, as things are structured, science is expensive and has become a kind of competitive commercial Get-Grants enterprise. But journalism, even science journalism, should bear the responsibility of calling things by their true names, and asking seriously about vested interests and so on.

But, the Nature piece is provocative in the following sense. A deeply embedded belief (truth?) one hears over and over again about science is that major discoveries over the centuries have been accidental. They can't be planned or predicted. Geniuses must be given free rein to think, tinker, experiment, and their eureka moments will follow.

If this is really true, how likely is it still to happen in today's vested-interest, continuity-driven funding-based arena? Big-money science today is goal-oriented--with the goals often dictated by the patron (NIH, the military, etc.)--and those goals are generally very specific and incremental, with every step carefully planned even years ahead of time. Knowledge is gained, for sure, but it was gained by Victorian beetle collectors, too, which didn't go very far. On the way, unexpected things are certainly to be found, but even they usually are within the incremental rather than conceptually door-opening.

Given the way science is funded these days, that's the way it has to be. So, there's less and less room for real luck and serendipity, as the 'visions' of the 2020 visionaries show in a round-about sort of way. Does this mean no progress will be made? Of course not, but it is a different kind of science.

Personally, we think that centralization of high-cost technology (like high-throughput DNA sequencing), and distribution of more, but smaller though longer-term grants to more different investigators, especially junior investigators, with less detail required in grant proposals, and with promotion and tenure and overhead disconnected from individual grantees' would increase the 'ecological' diversity of science and raise the probability of major new discoveries. Less intense pressure to hustle, more time to think, but there should be eventual accountability and project-termination criteria, too--unlike much of the Big Science that is being constructed, with guarantees of continuity in mind.

Nothing ensures any particular level of dramatic discovery, but as scientists we should want the odds to be as high as possible. Institutionalized enterprize may not be the best way to make that happen.

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