Category Archives: Follies of the Human Condition

Francis Bacon’s argument for books, libraries, and universities

The long quest for some funding may be easing a little, perhaps leaving some time and mental space to continue writing regularly here. In the mean time, enjoy this example of Francis Bacon’s remarkable gift for metaphor, from his Advancement of Learning, Book 2:

For as water, whether it be the dew of heaven or the springs of the earth, doth scatter and leese itself in the ground, except it be collected into some receptacle where it may by union comfort and sustain itself; and for that cause the industry of man hath made and framed springheads, conduits, cisterns, and pools, which men have accustomed likewise to beautify and adorn with accomplishments of magnificence and state, as well as of use and necessity; so this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed, as universities, colleges, and schools, for the receipt and comforting of the same.

And here Bacon defends basic research:

First, therefore, amongst so many great foundations of colleges in Europe, I find strange that they are all dedicated to professions, and none left free to arts and sciences at large…

And this I take to be a great cause that hath hindered the progression of learning, because these fundamental knowledges have been studied but in passage. For if you will have a tree bear more fruit than it hath used to do, it is not anything you can do to the boughs, but it is the stirring of the earth and putting new mould about thee roots that must work it.

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Immigrants are Critical for American Science

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My great-grandfather, a political refugee from Latvia, was a bacteriologist for Merck.

The Trump administration’s ill-conceived and implemented executive order harms all sorts of people, like Iraqis who risked their lives to help the US military, and US citizens whose spouses, parents, and children are not citizens. The policy is inhumane and will likely damage our national security.

It also harms science, as many are pointing out. (See Ed Yong in the Atlantic for stories of scientists who are directly affected.) Immigrants play an enormous role making American science great. I made the case for this in a Pacific Standard piece two years ago – and it’s a good day to reup the argument:

Science has always been most successful when countries exchange ideas, talent, and resources, which is why one of the National Research Council’s “ten breakthrough actions” recommended to Congress is to “ensure that the United States will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.” Our scientific preeminence relies heavily on migrant scientists, and that’s a good thing.

More Science is Always a Winning Bet

Eric Lander in The Boston Globe on hype and hope in medical research is well worth reading:

Science is the most powerful force in the world for improving human health and well-being. It consistently pays enormous returns on society’s investment, transforming the way we live and work.

This is a case we need to keep making, to society and our political leaders as we head into a new Congress, new administration, and new state governments in 2017. As Nature also argues this week, scientists need to stay politically engaged. And that doesn’t just mean partisanship; it means engaging with the party in power, even if it’s not yours.

The FDA is not holding back effective drugs

It’s going unnoticed amidst the news of the rolling disaster that is the incoming Trump administration, but our lame duck Congress has just passed a major piece of legislation called the 21st century cures act. Scientists are happy about the extra $5 billion this bill gives to the NIH – sort of. That money has to go to specific programs, like the Precision Medicine Initiative and Biden’s Moonshot program, rather than being put into the general funds of the NIH, meaning that Congress, and not the NIH, is deciding what specific research to fund. That’s generally not a good idea, but more money toward broad research and translational initiatives like cancer and precision medicine is still a net win.

More controversial are the FDA provisions of this bill. The bill pushes the FDA to take into account other, often less rigorous types of clinical studies when it decides whether or not to approve a new drug. Some worry that this means drug companies will have more leeway to push unsafe or ineffective drugs on the market. I’m more ambivalent – there are cases (drugs for rare diseases) when double blind randomized clinical trials may not be right, and the FDA should have the flexibility to demand the best evidence appropriate to each case. If – and this is a big if as we look ahead – we trust that the FDA can stand up to industry pressure, than giving them more flexibility to follow best scientific practices is the way to go.

My bigger problem with the FDA provisions are that the premise is flawed. As I write in Pacific Standard this week, the bill’s sponsors argue that, by cutting regulations and red tape at the FDA, we’ll free new cures that are just waiting to be put into the hands of patients. That’s wrong – the FDA is not the rate limiting step here. There is no backlog of effective new drugs just waiting to be approved.

Go check out my piece for the details. The rate limiting step is the science. Medical science is hard, and diseases are understood imperfectly. If you want more effective drugs faster, we need to invest more in research.

Trusted Sources

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reminds us that the public at large believes in the results of science based on their trust in scientists and, quite often, those that communicate the science.

The comic also shows how hazardous it can be to abuse that trust. This is why efforts to hold the institutions through which we do science accountable – like Retraction Watch, Rep. Speier’s HR6161, SAFE, critiquing of the publish-or-perish system, p-hacking, journal profiteering, and embargo abuse – are vital. It needs to be clear in public forums that we take that trust seriously and are more committed to protecting the integrity of the practice of science than to protecting individuals who violate that trust to maintain an illusion.