Friday, June 25, 2010

Ten years on

Here is a graph showing the results of a Nature poll asking scientists what the human genome project has meant to them, 10 years on. Sequencing technology wins. But then, technology is not only the darling of our society, it is the career-maker for many of those polled, and it applies across the board in the life sciences. And with technology comes new knowledge. Much of it is truly new: unexpected findings about DNA functions. But even if we know much, much more, our basic theoretical understanding of life and its evolution have not really changed as a result.

Of course, as the graph also shows, this doesn't mean that most scientists would say that technology's the only benefit. In fact, most do say they would have their genome sequenced if it were cheaper (though the results don't show what their interest is in having the sequence), but 16% wouldn't have their genome sequenced if you paid them. The poll, but not the graph, also shows that
[m]ore than one-third of respondents now predict that it will take 10–20 years for personalized medicine, based on genetic information, to become commonplace, and more than 25% even longer than that. Some 5% don't expect it will happen in their lifetime.

Why Nature should have taken this poll this is revealing. Revealing of Nature's nature as a magazine, of the social and also vested-interest aspect of science. Ten years is not a magic number, and there's no real bottom line finding in genomics or genetics as a result of the last decade. Genome data have streamed out before and since 10 years ago, and the 'announcement' of the human genome sequence was itself a highly staged event, for publicity and other aspects of funding politics.

Genomic and genetic research have prospered in the last decades, at an accelerating pace, and across the spectrum of the life sciences. The availability of the data, and of the technology to generate that data, including experimental technologies for developmental biology, has been enormously productive and helpful. It changes everything we do. But it is not associated with any fixed point in time. That's melodrama, and the fact that scientists pay any attention to it reflects some of the material and career interests much more than anything to do with the science itself. True scientific advances aren't adjudicated by popularity polls.

Whether a scientist would get his/her own genome sequence is like that, too. Most scientists, like most lay people, have not got a very clear idea what can and can't be predicted from a genome sequence. And how could they? Everyone in and out of science is being bombarded by all sorts of lobbying, advocacy, sales pitches, fear-mongering about funding, skepticism based on scientific argument, skepticism based on politics, and so on.

So, those MT readers who are not in science would have a hard time making much sense of such an informal poll. But that's OK, because the poll makes no difference to what's going on in science.


occamseraser said...

You guys spend an inordinate amount of time bashing Nature. Surely, Science is no better when it comes to hype and self-promotion. And don't get me started on PNAS and PLoS!

Ken Weiss said...

We would agree. We're in an era in which science has become a big, self-promoting enterprise. It goes beyond bragging, hype, and lobbying. It has become part of middle-class ('bourgeois'?) culture, so that we now have the major journals doing surveys of our opinions (as in the story of this post), and other aspects of soap-opera. Most journals, and this does include Science and PNAS, are including gossipy features.

The proliferation of reviews and commentaries, and abstracts forced to have the format of a whole paper, shows that much of what we do has to do with credentialism, quick citations rather than digesting of results, hasty hyper-partitioned publication patterns, and other things like that.

It doesn't mean that good or even great science isn't being done, but it does tend to affect how research resources are allocated, by adding a major lobbying and vested-interest component. That tends to make things conventional, conservative, and entrenched. It's things like that that, while we don't want to exaggerate them, we believe deserve scrutiny and criticism.

Anne Buchanan said...

You're right, OE, we should be more careful to be equal opportunity bashers. Of course, we really wish we had no occasion to bash at all.

occamseraser said...

heh heh
EOB, I like it!

And the winner and still champion of orchestrated lobbying and media-driven hype goes to...

... Darwinius and PLoSONE!

Ken Weiss said...

I am unclear about PLoS One. That's in some senses a vanity press outlet. As long as reviewers don't find actual mistakes, the editorial policy seems to be to accept the paper, collect the charge, get it on line, and let the chips fall where they may.

This opens the door for all sorts of advocacy and speculation papers. But it also opens doors that might be closed by the insider's club in science (though it's not clear how much of a problem that actually is these days, with so many journals).

The Darwinius problem (and I'm not enough of an expert to pass judgment) is that journalists pick up on stories, are uncritical about where it was published etc. so long as it gives them a good story. There is so much media these days that almost anything can get 'reported'.

Yet many good papers appear in PLoS One. I am not sure why people submit there rather than, say, other PLoS journals if they like the PLoS philosophy.

occamseraser said...

Open Source pubs really sound great in theory, but I regularly see things published in PLoSONE that I know for a fact have been rejected elsewhere, and for good reason (OK, OK, same same for PNAS). But it's superfast, allows unlimited color, accepts credit cards, and seems to be media friendly. To be fair, I've reviewed things for PLoSONE that did get rejected, but the editor-in-charge appears to have an unusual amount of control over the final outcome. At least it's better than Medical Hypotheses ;-)

Darwinius was something else altogether. An uncritical and poorly informed "scientific" press was fed exaggerated and absurd things about Darwinius, mostly by Hurum, who had a major financial interest in the fossil. The backlash was swift, harsh and justified in my opinion. I think even PLoSONE learned a hard lesson over that debacle.

Ken Weiss said...

In the past, it was difficult sometimes for a new person or a new idea to make it through the 'old boy' review screen--as it still is for grants to some extent.

PLoS One gives every idea a chance. But given its vanity press attributes, and PLoS' 'business model', it's certainly caveat emptor.