Science’s problems are social, not scientific

Some meandering thoughts after coming across a web site called Thinkable.org, which has the laudable goal of communicating the value of basic research in an effort to promote the funding and public support of same. There are some odd things about the site, primarily a weird mix of idealism and sloppiness that sits wrong with me. This is in part may be due to my allergy to “messaging.” GenX grew up with the War on Drugs and the PMRC and a constant barrage of “very special” sitcom episodes. Because of these misguided, patronizing, dishonest things being shoved in our faces during our formative years, we decided that all adults and institutions are completely full of shit. I am not saying that the motives behind these things were all wrong, but because e.g. the anti-drug propaganda was so filled with lies and risible scare tactics, we felt free to ignore it. No one likes to be manipulated, especially by squares! When you are communicating, respect your audience’s intelligence and don’t try to pull one over on them. If you do, you will eventually lose them no matter the quality of your argument*.

Ok, “Thinkable.” First, their motto is “Research is Never Irrelevent [sic].” I’ll leave that. Their current video—done in a sort-of Vi Hart with high production values style—is about GFP, the poster child for “curiosity-driven research yields huge biomedical payoffs.” I agree GFP is a good example, and it is rightfully trotted out constantly. Where they go wrong is in trying to tie this into a narrative about funding young scientists—another goal I agree with. They talk about how a “young scientist” named Martin Chalfie had the idea to use GFP to label cells in living animals. Chalfie was a tenured professor at Columbia University in his mid-40s when the GFP work was done. If there is a “not at risk” demographic in neuroscience research, that is it.

Who they should be pointing to is, of course, Douglas Prasher, who did the critical molecular work on the GFP gene, then quit academia because of funding problems. But that wouldn’t fit the neat narrative of “if we give young scientists a chance to follow their passion all will be cured.” Because the system didn’t give Prasher a chance to pursue his GFP work, but we got the benefit of it anyway.

And that is the hard reality…science doesn’t depend on individuals, their age, or their career stage. For Science to work as a system that produces research, it really doesn’t matter who does the science. We could keep the Boomers around forever and they will do good research. We could hand it all over to people in their 30s and they will do good research. On average HHMI PIs have 2+ R01s. Let’s give them all the R01s and a building full of labs to manage (each!), and let’s restrict it only to coastal cities with populations > 1M. Good research will get done. Let’s ban them from the NIH and limit everyone to a 1.5 R01 maximum. Good research will get done. Let’s mandate that R01s most be doled out state-by-state in proportion to population. Good research will get done.

We wish that our choices about how to fund scientists could be guided by some objective principles of the “best” ways to do science. But of course, all arguments about the “best” way to do science are specious and self-serving. We know that peer and grant review are just noise with respect to quality, so our current system results in the loudest and most entrenched in that system holding sway. But let’s not even have that discussion: it’s bullshit anyway, even if we COULD agree on what’s best. We need to make these decisions based on what we want Science to be as a social undertaking, not how to maximize widget production: how we want to treat people, what our values are related to equality of opportunity, what we owe our trainees and colleagues, and what kind of career paths we want to offer to the next generation of scientists.

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* But see also: poor Republicans

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3 Comments on “Science’s problems are social, not scientific”

  1. […] So what to make of this? The problem is defined superbly, but I think there’s a lot of bias towards elite academic institutions and the single PI model. Unfortunately, there are a lot of assumptions in the article about how science should be done, who gets to do it, and who decides who gets to do it, none of which are explicitly stated (other than senior people are wick-ED smaht!). If we want to solve the funding problems, we need to bluntly and honestly lay those assumptions bare. […]

  2. […] focus of the blog for a while has been (and will continue to be) mainly about rethinking the models and metaphors we use to talk about what a useful, sustainable and dynamic biom…. And, honestly, I think we mostly have one. Its clearest handicap now is flat funding, which is not […]

  3. […] budgets further? As inconceivable as this might seem, people outside academia expect NIH research to accomplish stuff, not serve primarily as a jobs program for wayward […]


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