January 4, 2015

Avoiding scientific nostalgia

By Carl Gustafson

Hello diversity blog readers and welcome to 2015! Thanks for sticking with us; we hope you’re as excited about the future of the blog as we are. If not, keep reading. Maybe someday we'll serve up the post you've been waiting for.

Science moves pretty fast [citation needed]. In fact, it’s very difficult to quantify the rate of progress of science (umm, units?), and it seems that experts disagree on how to actually do this. Regardless, it appears that global scientific research output (units?) increases at a rate of 8-9% per year. Compare this to the rate of increase in global computer processing power. “Moore’s law” (not really a law…and yes, I got this off Wikipedia, don’t judge) observes that the number of transistors in use, globally, doubles every two years. Whoa. That’s an estimated 4.5 times faster than research moves (output doubles every nine years). Since units seem to be an issue here and this is difficult to visualize…imagine yourself on the highway going 25 mph in your ’94 Ford Fiesta and I pass you in a Ferrari going 112.5 mph...Wheee!

Remember the Nokia 3210 (yes, that was the old-school ice-cream-bar-sized cell phone you all had in the early 2000s)? As much as I enjoyed it, I have never dug it out of boxes in my closet (cyrostorage?) in an attempt to find new uses for it. Technology has moved on, thankfully, to new phones that are faster, have better games, are backlit (*gasp!*), but are certainly not as durable as the old electronic brick that weighed down my already saggy Levis in 2004. Electronic communication exemplifies a field of research that has developed with astounding velocity. This past April, I became the proud owner of a sharp new smartphone and I expect that within the next six months this phone will itself become obsolete due to the release of some other ingenious communication device that will certainly disappoint if it cannot cook a pizza, and levitate, simultaneously. Such is the viciously competitive nature of electronics research and development. In parallel, such is the viciously competitive nature of biomedical research and development. It is of paramount importance that we stay on the leading edge. Innovation and discovery can happen consistently only if we understand the current research and cutting edge of our respective fields. We need to know what has been slain on the altar and dedicated to the gods of PubMed in order to continuously develop our own research in search of the cure for polycystic kidney disease, or hypoplastic left heart, or whatever we may be researching. But, I state the obvious…

In contrast to electronic communication, biomedical research has a tendency to unearth relics of its belabored and well documented past in a search for new but merely quasi-interesting uses for much-too-tired molecules or methods. Scientific nostalgia (if I may refer to this phenomenon as such), in the electronics industry, would be akin to breaking out your Mom’s vinyl records or repurposing your Motorola DynaTAC. Actually, this does happen. It’s called being a hipster. Thank goodness someone else is in charge of making new phones. Such reminiscing does little to further the field of consumer electronics, and, while entertaining at times, is fortunately not given serious attention in R&D fields. The idea of scientific nostalgia, while thankfully absent from technological R&D, is unfortunately present in biomedical research. Here we beat dead horses: old drugs, tired proteins, and ancient assays all being wrung out ad nauseam in search of new data only to be quickly PLoS One’d, not to mention our archaic systems of identification. As a rising scientist, it’s bewildering to observe brilliant researchers that for 35 years have slowly plucked away at dull projects on the same drug…or the same splice variant, or protein complex, with the same method, or…Examples continue. Creative grants with extensive innovation sections are often ignored as being “too risky” in favor of dry proposals containing exhaustive preliminary data as they are “safe.” At what point did we quench our thirst for truly revolutionary discoveries? Our hunger for progress and invention should be as boundless as our contempt for those willing to rest on their laurels while new frontiers lay waiting.

In part, this affinity for the past may be attributed to the non-quantitative nature of many aspects of biomedical research (with the notable exception of many sequencing technologies and mass spectrometry analyses). It’s easy to quantify outputs such as processing power or internet download speed, but how do we quantify the quality of a western blot for comparison to a technique that could replace it? (No, the correct answer is not “densitometry”…). With these subjective judgments, it is simply too easy to fall back on established methods. Such discussions end in a regression to the mean. Secondarily, I believe this all may be attributed at least in part to a funding system that heavily favors experience in a field. Sydney Brenner spoke at length on this subject in an interview with the King’s Review this past February. Creative differentiation is often inhibited by bias towards the known. As Dr. Brenner put it, “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.” Smooth words, Dr. Brenner. It is difficult to become funded in a field in which we are inexperienced (But what do I know? I’ve never been funded, even for things that I “know”…). Researchers may justify continuation in Field X because they have done Project XA and XB, and, although blatantly superfluous, Project XC was funded in lieu of previous success, so the work continues without producing truly inventive progress as this would require further creative differentiation. In reality, re-specialization or branching into new territory may be the best direction for Project X, but it produces challenges for funding and methods reasons. Many times, though, this could turn out to be incredibly successful. The first recent story that comes to mind is the development of CRISPR as a tool for genome editing. Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s lab went from studying influenza infected bacteria, subsequently realizing the potential of a unique observation, to recently forming a company that focuses on applying genetic modifications for therapeutic use. What a turn around.

In some cases, our aversion to perceived difficulty and fond associations with past successes hold back a field that is exploding with potential, many thanks to shotgun “-omics” technologies, high-throughput screening and sequencing, nano-engineering, high definition real-time imaging and a host of other modern research commodities, not the least of which is “the internet.” Let’s keep our eyes open, hands on the wheel, ready to take the next best merge, ramp or exit. Achieving initial success in biomedical research, only to lose interest in continued pursuit of legitimate progress would be like Apple producing the first iPhone, only to subsequently produce further iPhones that never really achieved any significant progress and were quickly left behind by an advancing field of work. Oh, wait…that’s what happened…


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