Treat everyone like they are your friend – even if they are not.

That is from my five year old child summing up the philosophy of Jesus*. We were talking about how to deal with classmates who are not being friendly. It struck me that this might, just might, be relevant to the current rhetoric surrounding the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees.

*We live in the pervasively Christian middle of South Carolina.

How to advance science by failure

Stewart Firestein has a provocative piece in Nautilus on the role of failing well in science:

As your career moves on and you have to obtain grant support you naturally highlight the successes and propose experiments that will continue this successful line of work with its high likelihood of producing results. The experiments in the drawer get trotted out less frequently and eventually the drawer just sticks shut. The lab becomes a kind of machine, a hopper—money in, papers out.

My hope of course is that things won’t be this way for long. It wasn’t this way in the past, and there is nothing at all about science and its proper pursuit that requires a high success rate or the likelihood of success, or the promise of any result. Indeed, in my view these things are an impediment to the best science, although I admit that they will get you along day to day. It seems to me we have simply switched the priorities. We have made the easy stuff—running experiments to fill in bits of the puzzle—the standard for judgment and relegated the creative, new ideas to that stuck drawer. But there is a cost to this. I mean a real monetary cost because it is wasteful to have everyone hunting in the same ever-shrinking territory…

How will this change? It will happen when we cease, or at least reduce, our devotion to facts and collections of them, when we decide that science education is not a memorization marathon, when we—scientists and nonscientists—recognize that science is not a body of infallible work, of immutable laws and facts. When we once again recognize that science is a dynamic and difficult process and that most of what there is to know is still unknown.

Putting numbers on the impact of basic research

Over at Pacific Standard, I tackle the question, How much does basic research really matter?

The idea that basic research is the indispensable foundation for technological and medical progress is widely accepted by scientists. It’s the core rationale for the major government investment in basic research made in the U.S and around the world.

But what’s the evidence for it? We can always come up with cherry-picked examples of a basic discovery that led to some revolutionary technology — general relativity and GPS, restriction enzymes and synthetic insulin, quantum mechanics and electronics, the double helix and genetic medicine, etc. Coming up with examples is easy. Quantifying the impact of basic research is hard.

A recent paper in Cell describes one way to do this. It’s not perfect, but the concept is surprisingly simple. Pick some new technology or therapy — the authors picked the new cystic fibrosis drug Ivacaftor — and follow the trail of citations to build a network of papers, researchers, and institutions that made the drug possible. Of course this network will include a lot of citations to studies that weren’t particularly critical. The trick here is sorting the wheat from the chaff: picking out the ‘network hubs’, the researchers and institutions that contributed consistently to the research that led to the drug.

The result may be not surprising to those of us working in science, but it’s still remarkable to see: dozens of researchers publishing hundreds of papers over several decades laid the essential scientific foundation for Ivacaftor. Continue reading

Lizard’s Eye View #finchstagram

Photo by Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA) via Instagram http://ift.tt/1SWbsa3

Allez les Bleus

Flag_of_FranceFor fans of rugby union (or association football), watching France’s national teams is often accompanied by supporters chanting “Allez les Bleus!” as they encourage their national representative.  We are all France supporters this week.