Rushing The Research

Random sciency image of the week!



I recently read an article (Biomedical research: Don’t let bean counters rule, The Straits Times 10 Jan 2011) on the state of biomedical research in Asia and the problems it’s facing. Ironically, it’s not that institutions lack money but that they’re being pushed to produce results much faster than makes sense. Senior journalist Chang Ai-Lien quotes a researcher at the University of Tokyo, who says “Government officials are the decision makers when it comes to funding but they usually do not understand genetics. They are pressing for short-term results because they have to show progress during their term in office.”

This is a point that was brought up both during discussions in my science writing class as well as in a more personal discussion with my cousin who’s working on his PhD. It seems as though the increasing complexity of science has created both investors who are unable to grasp the finer details, as well as the effectiveness that attracts investors in the first place.

What I find particularly interesting, however, is this line: “Asian scientists grumble that they are hampered by their own governments’ red tape, unreasonable expectations and infighting.” The first and the third are pretty much given, especially in countries where there might be a lot of monetary padding, shall we say, to carry the research through. But it’s important to consider where the unreasonable expectations come from. What government officials are exposed to is the media; what the media portrays can be wildly optimistic, premature or downright inaccurate. If their information comes from the media — and they may not exactly have time to pore over Campbell and Reese — then that’s what they know.

And that’s why inaccuracy or over-optimism in the media hurts investors/governments and the scientists themselves who are trying their best.

As the article itself mentions (in passing, and almost obliquely; this appears to be a “response” to an article in Nature called Singapore’s salad days are over), Singapore has itself begun to go down this route. While before, it seemed as though money could be given to any worthwhile project (in itself a loaded assessment) without much concern as to its immediate industry applications. But now, the tides are turning and the government’s apparently obscure regulations have researchers scrambling to find industry partners and put together applications because the Powers That Be want to see results.

The thing is, science doesn’t really work this way. Sometimes it’s not clear until much later what the applications of something can be. For instance, the effects of radioactivity on the human body weren’t well understood, but that didn’t stop some enterprising people from marketing radium as tonic water, perhaps even as toothpaste. That was quackery, but now it’s being used as cancer treatment, although of course with plenty of side effects. And no amount of media reporting or governmental regulations or industry partnerships will be able to magically uncover the true and full nature of some piece of research — without the extra effort being put in by the scientists in question. On one hand, the additional attention could lead to more money and further research and perhaps earlier discoveries. On the other hand, researchers could be pressurized into publishing shoddy work.

We like to think of science as something above and beyond human pettiness, as though there were some vast treasure trove of “real truths” waiting to be discovered. That might be so. But the practice and perceptions of science are a completely different and entirely human matter. They’re influenced by the people doing the research, the politics of the institution, the money and regulations that investors and/or governments throw at them, the way the media portrays science’s successes and failures… a whole host of things, in fact.

That might make the whole edifice of science and science reporting and researching suspicious; certainly the transparency of science reporting cuts both ways. Either science is discovering a million things in a week or it’s furiously contradicting itself about chocolate or wine or coffee or all three. Or both. The confusion’s understandable. But it’s exciting at the same time, and I like to think of the possibility of working in a field that, despite everything, is always on the lookout for the next big thing.


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