Tag Archives: science

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

The hard…is what makes it great

There are a lot of things to love in this piece from Christie Aschwanden about why retractions, studies that don’t hold up to reproduction, and even sub-fraudulent “p-hacking” do not mean that science is broken, but it is, simply, very hard. Among those things are the great visuals from Ritchie King – including a fun “p-hacking” demonstration tool.

For me, the real take home message goes beyond the “science is hard” catchphrase. Science isn’t just hard in the way implied by Tom Hanks’ Jimmy Duggan character in A League of Their Own:

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.

Contrary to the rhetoric that would portray “science is hard” as an endorsement of success over a monumentally difficult task, this is not the point.

As Ashwanden addresses, science is hard because it is messy and complicated and requires a communal effort from members of a species that is only dubiously social outside of relatively narrow local groups.

If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.

There are things like sampling variance and mistakes and uncontrollable environmental variables and resource limits and the fabled “orthologous methods” that inject all sorts of inconsistency and challenges into the textbook scientific method. This is why the great philosophers of science* spoke about disproof rather than proof, about independent reproducibility, about probability rather than certainty.

These issues do not indicate that science is broken. There simply is no other way it could work in the hands of mere humans. What may be broken is the way we perceive science. We need to understand that it is a gradual and a community effort. We need to understand that our mythos of science – of the great, usually in the stories, man performing a great experiment and making a great discovery – are almost always false summaries which are convenient and inspiring, but do not represent why science is truly hard.

*It is also why those who dismiss the philosophy of science as a waste of time – I’m looking at you Neil DeGrasse Tyson – deserve nothing but the most vigorous of side-eyes on that point.

Cinema Veritas

On the Pop My Culture podcast, actor Josh McDermitt described his first audition scene for the role of Eugene on The Walking Dead.

…I was taking to a girl. We were both backstage about to give this big presentation in front of, like, the world’s top scientists about some, you know, medical breakthrough we just had; and I’m backstage talking with her and I’m, like, berating her and, like, telling her how stupid she is, and then, and then, I try to sleep with her…

The scene, although fiction, rings very true, because this scene happens – not always in such a confined time frame, with those particular details, or with that intensity – but the aggression, denigration, and sexual objectification of women in science is ever present.

The focus of the description is on how the abuse of the female character illustrates flaws in the male character, because the description of the scene exists to illustrate the process of auditioning for a specific character. In real life, however, should we be more concerned with the character of the jerk or the life experience of those who have such behavior directed at them? As Janet Stemwedel notes in her column in Forbes on Tim Hunt’s controversial comments:

What if, when asked to say a few words to the Korean women scientists and the science journalists at the luncheon, he had recognized the audience he was speaking to was likely to have had quite different experiences in science than he had?

Science for the People: Human Research Ethics

sftpThis week Science for the People is learning about the regulatory frameworks that try to balance scientific progress with the safety of research subjects. We’ll speak to Holly Fernandez Lynch and I. Glenn Cohen of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School about their book Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future. We also speak to health journalist and editor Hilda Bastian about research, journalism, ethics and “The Chocolate Hoax“.

*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Musicians and scientists

Can you name a “musisci” – a person involved in both music and science? This was a question I asked over seven hundred people in a survey, and the answer looked like this:musisci

Without the top five answers, you can more clearly see some of the other ones:


As you can see, there are a lot of people who have both music and science in their life, and this includes about a third of survey respondents, as well.

Survey responses musisci.007

For the full results of the survey, see my blog post on easternblot.net. I’m also starting a quarterly newsletter about the musician/scientist overlap. First issue will go out today (with more survey results, some music, and related links), and the next one in August. You can sign up here if you’d like to receive it.