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Science built on empty promises

June 13, 2010

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2010 4:02 am

    Jonathan Marks’ “Why I am Not a Scientist” has some good commentary on this issue. He focuses on the ethics of biomedical scientists representations of the societal implications of their work, arguing that these are often discriminatory & racist (e.g., eugenics, “The Bell Curve,” and geographic determinism) and that practical outcomes are lacking (e.g., The Human Genome Project).

    As a “basic” scientist (in training), it is one of the key aspects of my field that I struggle with… when giving a research summary in order to secure funding, you have to account for “broader impacts.” The American public is giving me money to do my work. Where will the return on their investment be? What benefit will this project have to society? The *truth* is that no scientist actually knows if their work will be of value. Though many of us hope it will, we are not interested in taking responsibility for that transfer, leaving such things to doctors and engineers and entrepreneurs and politicians. Plus, the time frame is so long and external factors are so numerous that it is impossible to judge what current work will be relevant ten or twenty years from now. So we focus on what we are good at and are trained to do: discover new things about how the world works. Yet we basic researchers repeatedly make offhanded promises of “someday, maybe” impacts. We sell hope to get the grants and hide behind the qualifiers and fine print (“someday, maybe”) when the promises aren’t fulfilled.

    Sadly, many scientists are too fearful of “anti-science” (whatever that is) backlash, that they refuse to address relevant criticisms when they are asked to justify their own work, field, or science itself.

    • June 15, 2010 11:11 am

      Hi Justin,
      I think that NSF’s broader impacts requirement is unfortunate and misguided. NSF is supposed to be the country’s major investments in curiosity driven research, and yet we put in these weird bureaucratic hoops that force scientists to speculate wildly, and just make stuff up. How is that helpful?

      I think that demonstrating potential value takes a lot more than that. If a medical researcher wants to claim that a particular type of knowledge will improve health outcomes, then they should be required to demonstrate a detailed understanding of the context in which those health outcomes would occur.

      On the other hand, it should be ok to say, “well, this research will give us a more detailed understanding of some complicated stuff. It might be helpful but we don’t know.” That would put the proposal in a different category than the one that is more concretely related to a pressing problem.

      NSF, in my view, shouldn’t need to do more, but mission-oriented agencies like NIH and NOAA, definitely should.

  2. June 15, 2010 4:09 am

    I think it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable for scientists to make promises. Every other special interest group does so. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Some would even say ( that healthy democracy requires special interest groups.

    My main problem is that no one (scientists included!) realizes that in the end, all us scientists are simply another interest group.

    I would also say that your question has been answered quite loudly: I think it’s pretty clear that the public is perfectly okay with this pattern. The scientific community has been playing this game forever, and the public continues to support science. The only people who seem to have a problem are the CSPO-type scientists (of which I consider myself a member). And we’re a pretty small group.

    • June 15, 2010 10:48 am

      Thanks for your comments Justin and Praj.
      Praj – I think you make some good points, but how do you reconcile them? If no one recognizes that scientists are an interest group, but everyone’s fine with the current pattern of unfulfilled promises, is that ok?

      By analogy, what if we all thought that Wall Street firms were just selfless engines of economic growth, and that the main job of the SEC was to make sure the firms did as well as possible? That might make us more likely to accept their behavior, but it probably wouldn’t be a better situation. Institutions like the SEC are (supposed to be) managing these self-interested groups in order to protect the public.

      Similarly, I think one of the main problems we have with science is at the level of science management (NIH, NSF, etc). Government agencies should be managing research in full cognizance of the interest group politics that are in play. But for the most part, that gets ignored.

      • June 15, 2010 12:23 pm

        Good points Ryan. You’re right, there is an inconsistency there. I’m not sure how to reconcile them. Maybe somehow have non-academics as important players at NSF and NIH? I know RAND and the Urban Institute, e.g., have done great work critiquing the simplistic arguments made in the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report.

  3. August 26, 2010 8:33 pm

    Seriously, with so many money being pumped into science, biology, medical etc, There should be breakthrough…at least have the knowledge and skills to cure and put a stop to cancer.


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