Interesting interview on the state of science

Discussion in 'Science and Technology' started by gturner, Apr 8, 2014.

  1. gturner

    gturner Admiral

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    The interview is called:

    How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner

    Sydney Brenner (wiki) worked with Crick, Sanger, and many others and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

    The interview is very long, and touches on all sorts of topics, but it is well worth reading.

    Here's a random excerpt:

    ****

    SB: The thing is to have no discipline at all. Biology got its main success by the importation of physicists that came into the field not knowing any biology and I think today that’s very important.

    I strongly believe that the only way to encourage innovation is to give it to the young. The young have a great advantage in that they are ignorant. Because I think ignorance in science is very important. If you’re like me and you know too much you can’t try new things. I always work in fields of which I’m totally ignorant.

    ED: But he felt that young people today face immense challenges as well, which hinder their ability to creatively innovate.

    SB: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

    The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

    But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.
     
  2. Metryq

    Metryq Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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  3. Charlie Kelly

    Charlie Kelly Commodore Commodore

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  4. Metryq

    Metryq Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    "Denialist"? Thanks for making my point. The book is about all those "everyone knows" items. Whether or not he is correct in those particular arguments, it does not automatically follow that the rest of the book is invalid.

    There is unquestionably something wrong (Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers) with the way science is now practiced. If big money was spent on it, the science must be good, right? One can't do good science if the petri dishes get moldy.

    [yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ac7G7xOG2Ag[/yt]
     
  5. JarodRussell

    JarodRussell Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Dogmatism is always a problem, on all sides, in all directions. It's mostly an ego problem. When you, for example, present a new idea and the other guy chuckles, you know that you have hit that ego wall and that further discussion will be extremely annoying. Scientific theories are made by humans, and humans have territorial instincts. It's just natural that some people will have problems to let go of a theory or allow discussion of something that disagrees with it.

    If you have a theory, back it up with evidence. That is all there is. You can "deny" the link between HIV and AIDS if you can prove it, for example. But I find the idea of some great "science conspiracy" by the "scientific community" that sticks to false theories laughable. Stuff like climate change, relativity, evolution, big bang, etc... are commonly accepted because right now there is nothing that refutes these things in a ground shakingly fashion. If you manage to disprove any of it, others will test it of course, and if they come to the same results and conclusions, they will eventually accept it.

    Of course there are issues with the whole process of paper publishing. It's turned into a huge bureaucratic mess and the publishers want to make money first and foremost. The idea that anyone could write and publish a paper is still not impossible, but it's very costly. You have to be involved in the academic grinding mills to do any of that.


    Only a couple of weeks ago I read about two competing universities (with their own pharmaceutical contracts, I think one in Germany, one in Canada) working on a "cure" to blindness using artificial eyes/retinae. They don't work together, because they want to be the first to make money from it. That is simply sickening. At least they are not sabotaging each others work, but I guess it's not far from that.
     
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2014
  6. Charlie Kelly

    Charlie Kelly Commodore Commodore

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    It doesn't make your point at all. He's a denalist because the weight of scientific evidence behind HIV/AIDS is overwhelming. This isn't some scientific dogma, it's not based on belief but on the evidence and success of treating those with HIV, dramatically increasing life expectancy in many cases. And it does call into question the rest of his book. If his examples are wrong then where exactly is the dogma in science?

    The other examples from your link are "Big Bang cosmology, human-caused global warming, and the efficacy of anti-depressant drugs". Not exactly great examples. I'd hardly call the first two are things that "everyone knows" as there is lots of disagreement in public, however they are both well established through decades of research. His anti-depressants example might hold merit although not because of dogma in science but because of publication bias. Drug trials are more likely to be published if they are positive and this can skew the results. I'd recommend this book if you want to know more. Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken, and How We Can Fix It

    No denying this is a problem but it doesn't have anything to do with scientific dogma.
     
  7. gturner

    gturner Admiral

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    Well, at one time a whole lot of now accepted ideas were fringe, such as suggesting that uclers are caused by bacteria. Recently there's been a lot of discussion that the whole trans-fat and saturated-fat dietary advice was nonsense, and that there never was any real evidence to back it up, just a bandwagon that built into a dogma. Nutrition science has always been pretty sketchy because of the immense complexity of the subject and the difficulty in isolating the one component being studied, and of course it's very subject to fads.

    Even Jack Horner won't get fully on the asteroid/dinosaur bandwagon, saying "I don't know what killed them, I'm just glad they're dead." It's probably that an asteroid killed them, but there were other forces acting against them (such as the problem of a large animal that has to start out from a small egg, requiring it to grow up through every ideal prey size of every other predator on the planet, including birds and mammals).

    As for climate change, there's far more push for consensus than for certainty. Many top climate scientists like Judith Curry at Georgia Tech point out that the uncertainty in climate science is extremely high, and that it's a very wicked problem where gaining certainty is very difficult. None of the models can successfully backcast, much less accurately forecast (The Earth's temperature is now below all but one model run from the prior IPCC report - indicating about a 99.5% chance that the models are wrong).
     
  8. JarodRussell

    JarodRussell Vice Admiral Admiral

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    The transfat and whatever fat example is a good one, because that is an example of coorporations misusing it to make a profit. What of it is actual research, and what is just marketing? Nutrition science is less dictated by dogma than by business strategy.
     
  9. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    The common denominator in skewing science is money. If there is enough money to be made, unscrupulous scientists can "prove" a whole lot of things. But money screws up a lot of human endeavors, but it does not make them invalid.

    Money screws up government, but I don't hear anyone advocating anarchy.

    Money screws up healthcare, but I don't hear anyone advocating abandoning medicine.

    Money can screw up science, but I don't think that a reasonable person would use the actions of a few bad actors as an excuse to reject science or the scientific method as a whole.
     
  10. JarodRussell

    JarodRussell Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Certainly not. But the current practice of making money in science.

    Examples like the two universities NOT working together on the same solution because they are greedy. Companies misleading people by advertising with pseudoscience. I'm also very skeptical about certain patents, for example genetic manipulated crops that can end up anywhere.

    We're moving towards a situation where the one who shouts the loudest is right. And in this case it's the one who has the most money to support a campaign to advertise certain scientific "truths". Nutritional science is a very good example for that.
     
  11. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell Comfortably Numb Premium Member

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    Frankly, if you want to reduce corporate-minded motives in scientific research, you need more public funding of said research. The US lags behind the rest of the world in terms of public funding of research and it shows. The problem is not science or even the scientific community but how pathetically we underfund our science programs.
     
  12. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    Yep. It would also mitigate the current trend of billionaires dumping their money into projects that may not have benefits for humanity as a whole but sure look cool.
     
  13. gturner

    gturner Admiral

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    The problem with that is addressed in the article at the top of the thread. Since it's public money provided through a bureaucracy, to get funding you have to show that what you're doing is worth funding (ie. societal benefit that's likely to be realized), which means that you're just about finished with the research anyway. That can help flesh out some things we're already almost done with, but it makes it extremely difficult to fund something that's unanticipated and groundbreaking, because those types of ideas aren't already obvious enough to receive a grant.

    If you tried to get a grant to invent the smart phone, you might right it up as "A proposal for research into a better way to wireless communicate via telephone, while simultaneously accessing a vast range of networked computer systems, along with live video feeds." The government response would undoubtedly have been summed up as "Why the F*** would anyone want to DO THAT? I can't imagine anything more useless to society."
     
  14. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell Comfortably Numb Premium Member

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    Yeah, if the government exists as some strawman character you invented, it's easy to see how public funding of research goes awry!
     
  15. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    Well obviously the government science institutes are run by trained monkeys who randomly pick projects by stabbing at them with petrified banana peels. Seriously dude, lots of typed words don't mean you have a valid point.

    What do you want? Money for scientific research has to come from somebody, and those who provide that money have to have some kind of process for picking whom they are going to provide that money to, or else it is wasted.

    So unless you are advocating that we drop random bundles of money on any person who claims to be a scientist in the hopes they might be able to help humanity, then I don't see the point in radical changes to the current system.
     
  16. gturner

    gturner Admiral

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    Don't blame me. I'm just quoting the Nobel Prize winner who made groundbreaking advances in figuring how how DNA and RNA work. Perhaps you should bitch at him.

    He's saying that one of the problems (among many), is that due to the way we fund things, very few really bright scientists (and scientists know who these people are) are given free rein to explore down whole knew untried avenues, into areas where few or none have yet ventured. Yet science used to operate much like that when he was getting started, or at least to a much greater degree. He got a lab and a lot of freedom to pursue new ideas, ones that pretty much his whole field said were ridiculous (he proved them wrong).

    Now the funding is much more results oriented, and the committees want you to explain what you're going to find even before you find it, and on top of that explain what the significance of the discovery will be. Those requirements pretty much rule out finding something unexpected, transformational, and totally knew except by accident.

    Part of the reason the Nobel Prize carries a cash award is that the recipients, having proven themselves brilliant, groundbreaking thinkers, can take the money and come up with something else that nobody was expecting, with no strings attached. When we made so many scientists public employees (kind of like garbage men with better offices), we attached a lot of strings to what they did. They have to be "productive", otherwise they could get let go. Tenure is an attempt to stave off that situation, but tenure itself doesn't confer research dollars.
     
  17. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    Again, lots of words, little substance.

    You still don't offer a solution.
     
  18. Robert Maxwell

    Robert Maxwell Comfortably Numb Premium Member

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    If gturner is saying we need more funding for blue sky research, well, duh. I don't think you'll find anyone here who'd be against that.

    I don't think it's a coincidence that what public science funding the US does have is "results-oriented," as he put it. No kidding. Corporate lobbyists have themselves pushed the dialogue in that direction and gotten sympathetic politicians to cut funding for pure research. Once again, gturner makes the claim that inept government is the problem, when in reality it's corporate interference with government spending that's at the root of all this, aided and abetted by conservative politicians who think pure research is a waste of money.
     
  19. Jedi_Master

    Jedi_Master Admiral Admiral

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    I don't think he is actually saying anything, but I agree that government scientific funding needs to be increased and the process of awarding that funding improved. One of my wife's clients runs an extremely lucrative consulting business whose sole purpose is helping institutions create and burnish federal funding applications. That seems wrong to me.
     
  20. gturner

    gturner Admiral

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    I was unaware that corporate lobbyists controlled all the spending at universities and government research institutions.

    It's not that the government is inept (thought it generally is), it's that it's going to be using much the same system it uses for Department of Defense grants. When they're not looking for bang for the buck and quick results, they're trying a mega-project like a space telescope or a fusion reactor.

    A few months ago I was chatting with the head of facilities at our local university, and he talked about how it was his job to support the researchers who are bringing in the biggest grants, since the university has to make a profit by taking a cut of what they bring in. In the case he was complaining about, the school was trying to save money by being green and controling the temperature of the research buildings to save fuel, but some of the researchers were doing experiments whose temperature couldn't be allowed to vary that much. This could cause some of the more profitable researchers to leave (and we're talking pure government grant money, not corporate), which would leave offices vacant and thus non-productive.

    It's like the university is farming or share-cropping or something, providing space, power, and communication services in return for a percentage of the grant harvest.