Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ills, wills, and won'ts of science

Science is a rather large segment of our society, and a thoroughly human endeavor.  It's not apart from the rest of our social, economic, and political world even as it attempts to understand that world.  With thousands of universities needing students, faculty, and resources, all of us seeking prominence and recognition, the rather 'bourgeois' aspects of this social phenomenon are not unexpected. How could it be otherwise than that we'll establish hierarchies, advocacy, tribal factions competing both for ideas and funds or, more nobly, to show the others how (as we believe) the world in our area of expertise really is?

There will inevitably be pyramids of privilege and uneven wealth distribution, and in our society competition will drive this based on the widespread belief that competition (while harsh) is good for something, if not for the human soul.  In such an environment we can expect some outright cheating (pretty rare, fortunately), lots of sources of biased reporting and disingenuous 'null hypothesis' testing, dissembling, hyperbole and self-promotion.  Bureaucrats want to keep their portfolios of research projects large and richly funded.  University administrators want the overhead.  Journals want the material, and since they are businesses, the splashier the better (e.g., see this analysis of what's wrong with science publishing and how to fix it).  Ranking systems like 'impact factors' drive such bean-counting environments, naturally--how could it be otherwise?

Then there are the companies that make the instrumentation and other kinds of laboratory gear, including computers and software, that research depends on.  These companies, only naturally, will do what it takes to persuade us that their latest models are vital to success.  And what about the media?  They demand splash for their survival.  That's only natural, too.  And politicians?  They thrive on promises of health miracles, world dominance, scientific thrills, and various kinds of demagoguery by which fears are raised and their wisdom to fund research to relieve them are promised. 

So the hand-wringing and finger pointing about these problems are all only natural.  So, should we stop doing it?  We think the answer is absolutely not!  First, there will always be faults in any human endeavor, and in our type of society for a large endeavor, faults will be built (over time, by us!) into the system.  Some will corner markets better than others.  Most work will be chaff, even if there will always be amazingly insightful, skilled work that  positively contributes to knowledge.  For every Beethoven or Wordsworth,  Leonardo or Darwin, there will be a hive of drones who leave little mark on history.

Major changes rarely arise by brilliant new discoveries (the Darwins of the world), but most changes occur incrementally,  the tanker-of-science gradually changing course as fads come and go, glittering labs gradually fading as a new fad (whether good or bad) takes over.

Genome sequencing and GWAS as an example
We got many MT 'hits' last week by daring to point out that a substantial number of people are saying and writing that the payoff of GWAS and whole genome sequencing in large numbers of humans is not great and people may be tiring of it and the long-term cost commitment required, which prevents other areas (and investigators) from being funded.  There are large interests who are doing such work, and committed to it (for reasons that at least include their already vested interests, as well as various scientific rationales). They have large amounts of money, in many countries, and scientists know very well that a big project gains political investment that people will then be unwilling or unable to close down.  There are many examples, but big biobanks will be another that are just aborning.  They'll claim down the road that they are too big to fail, er, to have their funding cut. 

Of course, the focus or obsession on genes and 'omics' (large-scale, exhaustive generally hypothesis-free and  exploratory enumerations) may not fade.  Predictions that it is playing itself out by overkill or hyper-hype, may be wrong--we'll see.  Indeed, such commitments cannot fade very rapidly even if they deliver nothing at all (which isn't the case), if the hold on huge long-term funding is made.  But whether it pays off or not, there are many who feel it has co-opted too much else relative to its payoff.

This is but one example of the issues being raised about how science, The Enterprise, is being conducted these days, not by wealthy back-yard tinkerers but by a large middle class housed in large institutions.  Many worry about the faults, but of course they (and, sometimes, we) are on the cranky fringe that always exists.  Cranks can have their own agendas, including jealousy, of course.  But without at least some nudging from those who see the faults--and the faults in modern science are deep and wide--course corrections might be even harder to make, and lack of correction much costlier to the society that pays for it.

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