I’m loath to call Scienceblogling Josh of Thoughts from Kansas out since he was one of my earliest linkers and readers, back when I was but a wee Mad Biologist; I probably wouldn’t have the readership that I have, in part, were it not for Josh. But Josh wrote something about Eric Lander that really pissed me off:
Lander’s work is very important, but the development of large-scale genome sequencing is largely a technical challenge, which scientists often distinguish from the challenges in testing our broad conceptual understanding of the laws of nature. While “test tube jockeys” often produce important results, there tends to be a certain skepticism of their work. Similarly, medical research is so focused on the practical application that scientists in other fields are dubious about regarding medical researchers as being engaged in the same sort of enterprise as a theoretical physicist or a landscape ecologist.
I call bullshit.
And it’s not because I’m some kind of ‘Lander groupie’–I believe I’ve talked with Lander once for about a minute. It’s the statements about genomics and the relationship between medically-oriented research and science. Onto genomics, then.
Is “the development of large-scale genome sequencing” a technical challenge? Of course it is. But science requires people who understand that to fundamentally change any field, you need to dramatically change the means and the scale by which data are collected and analyzed. Having been trained originally as a marine biologist, I find Josh’s description of Lubchenco (who is a “pure scientist” apparently) both odd and selling her short. In historical context, one of Lubchenco’s seminal contributions-perhaps her most important contribution to her field-was her recognition that experimental laboratory rigor-methodological rigor, in particular-could and must be used ‘out there’, outside of the lab. The only way we could begin to get a handle on ecological processes was if we had the methodologies (that is, technologies) to then apply to theoretical questions. And it goes without saying (or should anyway) that new methods transform fields by destroying old theoretical frameworks and requiring new ones.
Some of the genomics work I do (with many others) illustrates this. As I’ve mentioned before, I work on the human microbiome project. Because of the technical rigor that we and other major sequencing centers have brought to 16S rRNA characterization of microbial communities (really for the first time in the field’s relatively short history), we are now generating large datasets that will change how we analyze and understand microbial communities. Many of the assumptions made by microbial community ecologists in dealing with these data are inadequate, and were only found to be so because of the technical rigor and scale of the resources brought to bear.
That leads me to my next peeve, which is the claim that “scientists in other fields are dubious about regarding medical researchers as being engaged in the same sort of enterprise as a theoretical physicist or a landscape ecologist.” To use the above example, we can’t even do quality control (i.e., are we doing a good job of sequencing?) without doing rigorous community ecology (which is how we stumbled across the realization that many of the methods are bunk). Anyone who is doing ‘applied science’ without thinking about his or her problem just as a ‘pure scientist’ would isn’t doing good applied science. And the gains we make in medical microbiology (boo! hiss!) will change how ‘pure’ microbial ecologists will use the same methods and analytical tools to assess ‘real’ microbial communities.
But what I find truly disconcerting is that Josh, who works for the leading organization that combats creationism is willing to heap disdain on medical science. As I and others have argued before, the intersection between evolution and medical progress is one of the strongest arguments to the unconvinced about the utility of evolution (without repeating a whole bunch of posts, we already have many of the intellectually curious; it’s the rest that are the hard sell). In the field of microbial population genetics, the hundreds, if not thousands of bacterial genomes, many of which will deal with medically related organisms, will-not have ‘the potential’, but will revolutionize how we understand bacterial evolution ‘out there.’ The medical benefits are a bonus (and a life-saving one at that). Likewise, many of the gains in population genetics (and genomics) tools are a result of high-throughput medically-oriented research.
Trust me, Lander will be a very good friend to ‘pure science.’