Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Posts Tagged ‘scientific progress

Purpose in scientific research

Throughout this arsenic-life NASA saga, I’ve been trying to pinpoint the fundamental reasons to explain why this story got out of hand.  Why did NASA feel the need to uber-hype this research?  Why the rush to publish research even if it may not have been ready?

I’ve drawn the conclusion that the primary cause is the need to be PURPOSEFUL while performing scientific research.  For an example, I’ll take the research I currently work on.  I study the aging process in yeast cells, focusing on how the cells’ epigenome changes as a cell gets “older.”  We do this research under a federally-funded grant, for which our purpose is to study the aging process to help us better understand cancer and other age-related diseases.

But, to be honest, I don’t really care about cancer.  I mean, I am someone who is perhaps a bit too comfortable with my mortality, but even beyond that: I actually just think the idea of different proteins and other factors manipulating what sections of DNA are translated and expressed is fascinating.  I want to understand this process better – what proteins do what?  how is this different in different cell types? how did this system evolve? – and this “aging grant” is really just an excuse for me to do so.

I doubt I’m alone here.  I think a lot of scientists are more interested in uncovering the various processes, not for the good of mankind, but simply because we want to understand.  (Correct me if I’m wrong, scientists.)  I’d be happy to cure cancer along the way if I can, but in terms of my own goals and what is possible during my brief stint in this field, I just want to understand this system a little bit better than when I started.

Science wasn’t always done with a purpose.  Think about Charles Darwin.  Sure, he was interested in natural history, but he was on the Beagle to provide friendship to the captain.  Along the way, he collected a bunch of samples of mockingbirds and finches and other organisms, and it wasn’t till decades later that he put the pieces together and formulated his theory of selection of the fittest.  He didn’t collect specimens on his travels for any real purpose, but used the data he collected to draw conclusions later.

Of course, back then science was primarily done by rich men with too much time on their hands.  Now science is the forefront of innovation and progress;  we need more people than bored rich men to be studying it and, hell, anyone should get a chance to do so!  But with greater knowledge and technology, we need more money.  And since I’m not a rich bored man, I don’t have any money.

That’s where the government comes in: grants to fund research.  But since it is taxpayers that are funding this research, it should have goals that will benefit those taxpayers.  Thus I study aging and cancer.  And these grants do keep us on task.  If I find a cool mutation that alters the epigenome of my yeastie beasties and it’s not related to the aging process, I will not be following up on that project.

I go back and forth on whether this is a good thing.  On the one hand, it keeps us accountable to the government and taxpayers, who give us our funding.  But on the other hand, does research for a purpose help us really advance in biology, help us better understand how life works?

One of my bosses, a great scientist, doctor and philosopher king, recently emailed this quote to our lab from Carol Greider, a recent Nobel Prize winner for her work on the discovery of the aging-related enzyme telomerase:

“The quiet beginnings of telomerase research emphasize the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research. At the time that it is conducted, such research has no apparent practical applications. Our understanding of the way the world works is fragmentary and incomplete, which means that progress does not occur in a simple, direct and linear manner. It is important to connect the unconnected, to make leaps and to take risks, and to have fun talking and playing with ideas that might at first seem outlandish.”

This idea burns me to my very core.  Purpose-based science assumes a certain knowledge of the systems we’re studying.  But, let’s face it: we still have so much to learn.  We’re all still flailing toddlers, trying to find a surface to hoist ourselves upon so that we can actually get somewhere.  While scientists are often conceived to be smart and have all the answers, we actually don’t have many.  The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know anything at all.

But instead of being allowed to play, to follow up on work because it’s exciting, to take risks, we have to make sure we stay within the limits of our funding and, thus, our purpose.  Because “playing” or studying something because we think it’s AWESOME doesn’t provide evidence of “progress.”

I could be entirely wrong: maybe the old adage that progress is made in leaps and bounds (as opposed to baby steps, I suppose) is farcical.  Maybe I only believe this because my human soul that thrives on chaos is drawn to it.

Either way: the purpose of research is overemphasized.  When I read papers, I am interested in knowing how their discovery fits into “practical knowledge” (“There is hardly anything known about X disease, BUT WE FOUND SOMETHING!”), but more than that, I’m interested in how it fits in with the current model of whatever system they are studying.  But that rarely gets as much attention in papers.

And this idea of “purpose” is why science in the media is so often overhyped.  News articles often take a definitive stance on how the new study has contributed to the public good.  Maybe it’s “eating blueberries will preserve your memory” or “sleeping 8 hours will make you attractive.”  This makes the science easy to digest, sure, but it also paints an incomplete picture.  These studies are just tiny pieces in a puzzle that scientists will continue to work on for decades.  It’s pure hubris to believe that non-scientists cannot understand the scientific process – that they cannot understand that it takes incremental steps.  But, nonetheless, if your research cannot be easily hyped, no one will hear about it, so you have to serve a purpose.

So with NASA’s arsenic-based life.  The current model, both in funding and the media, of requiring purpose to justify research forced NASA to claim a greater purpose for its discovery: “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

To give both NASA and the researchers the benefit of the doubt, let’s just say they found this cool bug and wanted to share the news to get help in studying it, as author Oremland suggested.  They submitted the paper to officially get the word out.  But then they needed to find a “good reason” to have been studying arsenic microbes and NASA decided this was a good opportunity to reinvigorate its reputation of performing “useful science” so called a press conference.  You know where it goes from here.

All that is pure speculation – but it probably isn’t too far from the truth.  Maybe I’m being too kind, but I really doubt that the researchers or NASA had any ill-intentions.  They simply lost control, and the following shitstorm took off.

We can scoff at them all we like: “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, my ass!”  But it’s really not so different from my lab publishing a paper with the headline, “KEY FACTOR IN CELL AGING UNCOVERED” when, really, we just discovered a factor, and we don’t even know if it’s key.

The idea of “useful science” also dampens my feelings about science: SCIENCE IS COOL!  Longing to pry up the corners of current knowledge isn’t enough: we can’t just look, but have to reveal a direct outcome.  But if we don’t allow ourselves even to look because of various purpose-based limitations, we could be missing out on something FUCKING AWESOME!

I’m just rambling now – and am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

  • Does purpose-driven science lead to better science or more innovation?
  • Are there ways of judging research as worthy (e.g. for funding purposes) without having to provide a direct purpose?
  • How should the media change its model for covering stories?  Should every study that comes out get attention, or should we wait for more details and provide more review-like coverage?
  • Would larger, field-based studies dampen competition?  Would this help or hurt scientific progress?

Etc. etc.  If you made it this far, thank you, xox, Hannah.

Written by Hanner

December 16, 2010 at 12:08 pm

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