Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The natural and naturally defensive inertia of business-as-usual: is there a better way?

One common response we and others get when critiquing what's going on in the expensive arena of current life science is that we should stop criticizing until we can provide a better idea of how the science should be done--and given the publicity typically associated with business-as-usual (BAU), that requires us to promise a better miracle.

But we intend to be talking about science here, and that makes such responses rather off the mark.  One may differ with our view, but the you-have-to-say-what's-better retort is an unfair response for several basic reasons.

First, science is about understanding nature, and if current BAU isn't very good at that or living up to its own publicly promoted promise, or has entered into a time of diminishing returns, it is perfectly appropriate and fair to criticize it.  If a critique of BAU is on the mark, it is not a scientifically appropriate defense to criticize the critic for not having a solution at hand. Instead, the critique is a kind of call to action. The challenge is daunting, but could stimulate people to think about why and what to do about it, and perhaps some lucky brilliance will yield a better approach.

An Illumina HiSeq 2000 sequencing machine

Secondly, this is largely about politics, because it has to do with resources.  The you-say-what's-better response is in fact not about science but is instead a ploy to defend BAU, and if most objective observers agree that the problems a critique raises are cogent, it is a desperate ploy.  The response is very understandable.  We all have to make a living, and we scientists aren't any less self-protecting than any other part of society.  We're trapped in that mode, to some extent--indeed, we see little evidence that even the protection of the tenure system makes people behave differently, and of course if your salary must come from grants.....

We also have our vested psychological interests, our sense of worth and so on, to protect as well.  Even in science, where exploration of the unknown is our self-professed activity, change is a threat to the comfort of the known territory of BAU.  In our commercial culture that, like it or not, now even includes universities-as-businesses, lots of of money is to be made, careers to be lived, and people to be employed pursuing BAU--even if it never really delivered on its promises.  Indeed, that's kept religions in big business for millennia! 

But these realities in themselves might be used to leverage a better approach.  What if we as a community agreed  collectively to exert the needed political pressure to modify the funding system to put it on a more science-centered basis: for example,
(1) phase out grant-based university faculty salaries, 
(2) give smaller but longer-term grants, hence spreading resources to more investigators,  
(3) ask for accountability for serious, relevant activity, but not 'results' of any pre-specified sort,  
(4) cap the amount of resources any lab could have;  
(5) centralize more high-cost technical resources so no investigator had a reason to hoard results or monopolize or drive up acceptable technology, or keep high funding to maintain a costly resource;  
(6) penalize excessive promises and/or raise the bar of expectations (and qualifications for future funding) to be commensurate with the hype in proposals,  
(7) remove the need to couch research in fear-mongering rhetoric such as promises to eliminate disease, for example, by shifting basic genomics from NIH, or NASA's 'astrobiology' resources to NSF, where they would get a more scientifically critical eye;  
(8) shifting resources to agricultural and ecological research to force NIH to focus on the most important, actual health problems, and thus put funds in much more socially important areas;  
(9) try (somehow) to reform the media to do their job and be less gullible, willing partners in exaggeration (e.g., by holding investigators to what they say to the media, in terms of actual delivered results). 
         (10)  Find some way to fund more truly exploratory, and riskier, projects that may have
         higher  chance of really imporrant new finding.

These kinds of positive recommendations have been made before, and are probably just dreamland, since the many vested interests would vigorously impede them.   Certainly they're unlikely without strong grass-roots pressure from investigators, which any entrenched system makes very difficult and unlikely. Not only that, but of course these suggestions are strategies for stimulating original new thinking, but don't themselves include any specific new scientific ideas.  Nonetheless, it is perfectly appropriate to point out the wasteful inertial basis of current BAU.

Nonetheless, we have not just critiqued BAU. We've often pointed out its tremendous success.  It has to a great extent revealed the nature of Nature, in ways that were suspected theoretically but could not previously be proved.  But that success didn't reveal Nature to be what had been hoped or hyped for: she's not simple and doesn't yield quick and easy miracles.  Too bad! 

The problem, at least as we see it, is entrenched dependence on Next Generation sequencing machines (and then the Next-Next Gen ones), that is, a technology-driven race for the ever-bigger and the consequent need for endless large grant support, a belief system that impedes moving to more effective and focused approaches (many of which would require high technology).  Today there is often not  the luxury of the time to think about what those better approaches might be: too many investigators feel, and acknowledge privately--that they have to spend too much time just justifying why BAU (but of course on a much larger scale!) will rescue us (and keep the funding flowing). 

It's fair to ask people to stop whinging when we and others point out that, as everyone aware actually knows, what we've all been up to has developed an inertia that is no longer optimal.  We all should start lobbying for change in the system, so we can be able to address the real challenge, which is to look full-face at the world we are interested in, and try to assess where we should be going to understand the laws of nature.

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