Science built on empty promises
The lead story in today’s New York Times presents some tough questions about science policy. The topic is the disappointing lack of medical applications resulting from the Human Genome Project which was completed ten years ago:
For biologists, the genome has yielded one insightful surprise after another. But the primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project — to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments — remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.
Back to square one? A debatable assertion to be sure, but it is certainly disturbing that such an ambitious and resource intensive effort has been so drastically underwhelming, when you compare it to the promises we heard from the medical research establishment ten years ago.
For medicine this is disappointing, but for science it is both business as usual and mission accomplished. They succeeded in generating sufficient excitement about genetic therapies to attract vast amounts of funding. That funding will only continue as we move forward. As I pointed out last week, it is quite difficult to say anything meaningful about the benefits of this investment. But for the same reason, it is also quite difficult to argue against such investments.
So where to from here? Well, just as we heard ten years ago, the medical science community will no doubt continue to argue that a miraculous revolution is just around the corner. This behavior is certainly not limited to medical science. A recent NRC report points out that the climate science community has made impressive scientific advances with more than $25 billion over the last 20 years, though very little progress has been made on the actual objectives of the program, which are centered around providing useful information to decision makers.
So, interesting revelations in biology, but no miracle cures. Drastically more complex climate models, but no helpful predictions. Back to square one indeed.
The science policy question is this: are we, the public, ok with this pattern? In a democracy where the squeaky wheel seems to get the grease, does science have to make its living on empty promises? It’s a tough one to argue on either side.