Avoiding a Scientific Dark Age Is Going to Be Tricky

By Nadim Maghzal


A couple of scientists examining dinosaur pee. via WikiMedia Commons.

Nadim is a postdoctoral cell biologist at McGill University, he is also the guitarist of Montreal's Wake Island.

The trust people put in science has never been so high. To many of us westerners, science is the irrefutable doctrine.  It seems like the “believe me dude, it’s scientifically proven!” argument is assertively dropped at every debate we have these days. Judging by the improvements it brought us in the 20th century; it seems pretty legitimate to value science so highly and allocate a significant chunk of our tax money to fund it. However, with unfortunate developments like the relentless gagging of scientists from the Conservative regime of Stephen Harper he faults of the scientific industry are becoming more apparent

Scientific progress is driven by government-funded academic research on one hand, and on the other by private industry research undertaken by corporations. Lately, western governments’ policies have restricted the freedom of academic scientists—by choosing to fund academic research that directly serves corporate interests—because it is supposedly better for the economy. This harms basic, “blue-sky” research deemed of no immediate economical value to corporations and strongly narrows down the variety of research fields being explored to fewer trendy ones. Such measures taken by our enlightened governments might have dire consequences on the long-term health and credibility of science as well as terrible effects on the economy. Here are some reasons why:

Following research trends becomes a necessity   

Many academic scientists find themselves obligated to focus their research on trendy topics that increase their chances of getting funded.Unfortunately, following research trends generates negative competition. Scientists who study overlapping topics actually race to publish their study first and get the scoop. In the process, they can end up selecting the data that best fit their study while turning a blind eye to things that are too complicated or don’t make sense.

At the end of the day, not being published leads to not being funded. The pressure to get the scoop can even push some scientists to falsify results and, in rare fucked up cases, to sabotage each other’s data.

For example, here’s a sketchy falsification story: Science published a hyped article a few years ago claiming that MDMA (ecstasy) consumption is way more toxic to the brain than it actually is. Turns out that this study, conducted by a famous ecstasy expert in the war on drugs—and heavily funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse—reached its conclusions by injecting apes with dinosaur-sized doses of methamphetamine, instead of recreational doses of ecstasy.

Trendy research is unreliable.

A recent study has shown that the reliability of published findings decreases with the popularity of the research field. In biology for example, the most well-funded and popular fields are cancer/clinical research and biotechnology, which are obviously of direct interest to corporate R&D (for drug development, genetic engineering, GMOs etc.). Expectedly, in these trendy fields there is a steady increase in the number of papers that get retracted from the scientific literature yearly because they are wrong. So working on “hot” topics might make it easier to publish in higher impact journals (especially with proper editorial schmoozing, which sadly happens more often than it should) and get funded. Statistically, this produces faulty papers. This type of research is flooding scientific literature.

Basic Research Drives Scientific Progress

Historically, the most groundbreaking discoveries that have revolutionized science came serendipitously from “basic” researchers working in areas that are far from those of immediate interest to the industry. In fact, we owe most of the 20th century’s crowning scientific achievements to basic research, from the discovery of penicillin to the sequencing of DNA. Here are examples that illustrate how basic research counter-intuitively leads to stellar advances in medicine and biotechnology:

· The discovery of Green Fluorescent Protein in a weird jellyfish species allowed us to observe how molecules interact in “live” cells (that’s a huge deal! It’s also pretty psychedelic).

· Studying an odd deep sea bacterial species yielded the identification of a super molecule that made amplifying DNA in vitro—a crucial method used in medicine and forensics—possible. 

· A surprising observation in a roundworm species lead to the discovery of RNA interference, a gene-silencing method that has radically improved medical research.       

Some might argue that we know enough now to put a halt on basic research and push academics to be more “productive.” That is a very dangerous assumption, and it’s simply not true. While it’s obvious that we made great scientific progress in the last century, we still don’t know all sorts of things. We certainly don’t fully grasp most elucidated findings. Gaps in our knowledge, which must be filled for successful product development by companies, can only be filled by research that is not aimed at producing fast results. Scientists should be focusing on understanding processes that are complex, regardless of how long it might take to get there. It is thus crucial to keep educating young scientists as patient free thinkers to avoid the coming of a “dark age” of science, lead by business-minded scientists, that are completely lost in an ocean of faulty data.         

Sadly, many of us fear that the crucial freedom once enjoyed by academic researchers is slowly being replaced by business greed. It all sprouts from the same problem: turning basic research into a corporate commodity. Ironically, if politicians and CEOs had a better understanding of how real scientific progress is achieved, they would realize steering science in this direction would inevitably hurt corporations and the economy on the long run. One of the biggest challenges of modern science is to guarantee its own healthy evolution. The “non-scientific” community has a very important role to play in this challenge, too: we should not expect science to perfectly answer all of our questions. It takes time for solid discoveries to be made.

 

Follow Nadim on Twitter: @NMaghzal

Previously:

Stephen Harper Needs to Stop Gagging Canadian Scientists

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