This week Nature covers the online response to Eve Marder’s piece in eLife arguing that we shouldn’t shrink PhD programs. The article mentions my response and adds a few more comments by people with different perspectives. Go over and read it, and chime in with your opinions!
Over at Pacific Standard this week, I look at Arizona State University’s fascinating Project Hieroglyph – a project to inspire us to think big with science fiction. The project, inspired in part by Neal Stephenson, just put out an excellent anthology of SF edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, featuring thought experiments worked out as SF stories.
In the preface to the anthology, Stephenson looks back at the great technological achievements of the mid-20th century, notably the Apollo program, and worries that we are no longer a society that can get big things done. We’re unwilling to think big, attempt truly ground-breaking ideas, or solve society’s biggest problems. We need to unshackle our imaginations, and SF can help us do that.
You can read my response at Pacific Standard, but here’s the tl/dr version:
Scientists and engineers have plenty of imagination. What they don’t always have are the incentives and support to take big intellectual risks. Making the case that we should tackle big ideas that might fail is Project Hieroglyph’s most valuable contribution. Neal Stephenson writes that “the vast and radical innovations of the mid-twentieth century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Pursuing insanely dangerous ideas—like nuclear weapons—is probably not the best way to build a better society. But risking failure is critical in science and technology. Unfortunately, failure is expensive, and the lack of money is probably the best explanation for why our society isn’t “executing the big stuff” that Stephenson wants to see. Scientists facing increasingly poor career prospects become risk-averse. Venture capitalists who complain that they only have 140 characters instead of flying cars are nevertheless hesitant to fund the expensive and risky development of technology that could be genuinely transformative. We certainly need imagination in science, and we should tell inspiring stories about big ideas. But to realize those ideas, we have to pay for them.
George Herbert’s “Vanity (I)” (1633)
Science has always made people uncomfortable. Witness the recent comments from the U.S. House Science (Denial) and Technology Committee:
We’ve had climate change since the day the earth was formed, whenever that was, depending on whatever you believe. — Rep. Bill Posey (R – FL)
I just don’t know how y’all prove those hypotheses going back fifty, a hundred, you might say thousands or not even millions of years, and how you postulate those forward. — Rep. Randy Weber (R – TX)
These confused politicians are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of modern science itself. George Herbert was a friend of Francis Bacon, but the pious Herbert wanted nothing to do with Bacon’s radical ideas about the natural world. Herbert’s recent biographer John Drury explains:
Long before the discoveries of Darwin and modern astrophysics, some explanation of how everything had come into existence and how it worked was required. Divine creation provided that, had no challengers, and held the field. The natural world presented no moral problems. Rather, it provided ample scope for the investigation of the heavens and the earth which was beginning to gather pace among intellectuals, led by Herbert’s older friend Sir Francis Bacon. In his early poem ‘Vanity (I)’ Herbert was chary about such ‘philosophy’ as it was called, dismissing astronomy and chemistry as too speculative to occupy the valuable time of the practical Christian.
Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury p. 12
Mike Eisen makes an excellent point about NIH Director Francis Collins’ recent claims:
But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.
You can make a better case about the direct impact of funding cuts with the shrinking budget CDC Public Health Preparedness Funding, as Judy Stone notes over at Scientific American.
Suggestions that we need a new evolutionary synthesis because of phenomenon X pop up like weeds in biology. It’s nice to see some of my favorite evolutionary geneticists – Greg Wray, Hopi Hoekstra, Douglas Futuyma, Richard Lenski, Trudy Mackay, Dolph Schluter and Joan Strassman – make a strong case that the fundamentals of evolutionary theory can accommodate the hot new phenomenon of the day (e.g, epigenetics), and that genes are not passé:
The evolutionary phenomena championed by Laland and colleagues are already well integrated into evolutionary biology, where they have long provided useful insights. Indeed, all of these concepts date back to Darwin himself, as exemplified by his analysis of the feedback that occurred as earthworms became adapted to their life in soil…
Finally, diluting what Laland and colleagues deride as a ‘gene-centric’ view would de-emphasize the most powerfully predictive, broadly applicable and empirically validated component of evolutionary theory. Changes in the hereditary material are an essential part of adaptation and speciation. The precise genetic basis for countless adaptations has been documented in detail, ranging from antibiotic resistance in bacteria to camouflage coloration in deer mice, to lactose tolerance in humans…
All four phenomena that Laland and colleagues promote are ‘add-ons’ to the basic processes that produce evolutionary change: natural selection, drift, mutation, recombination and gene flow. None of these additions is essential for evolution, but they can alter the process under certain circumstances. For this reason they are eminently worthy of study.
h/t Ed Yong