Trying too hard

Jonathan Eisen dresses down university press departments that oversell science, and also hits on one of my pet peeves: the attempt to portray all scientific research as addressing human ills. In this case, it's claiming that research on shark gene expression will help treat birth defects.

In my own research, I look at the effects of alcohol (among other things) on embryonic development in zebrafish, and it is a kind of animal model of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. People always jump to the assumption that I'm trying to find a cure for FAS, and I have to correct them: I definitely am not. FAS is a developmental disorder, and is not curable … and we already have a solution in the form of public policy and maternal education that can prevent the problem. I use teratogens as a simple tool to perturb the process of development so I can view the interactions involved; I also see development as an event involving both genes and the environment, and just about everyone mucks around with genes, so I'm looking at it from the other side.

So my work with teratogens is much more directly applicable to research on birth defects, and I deny the association; most of the work out there on gene expression in fins is going to even more remote from applied medical uses, not that that will stop PR departments.

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Well that's all about two things: public perception and funding, isn't it? Most pure research sounds like ivory tower twaddle to your average Joe, and it's much easier to get funding for applied research than work that seemingly has no immediate benefit to humanity.

That would be true Derek except that this eternal truth has become axiomatic in recent years. It is becoming harder and harder to get basic science funded on its own merits. This also leads to people being at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest in their grant applications. This is not good for science as people learn that being so brings rewards, if it was true for my grant why not in my papers?

To get a grant funded looking at muscle patterning we had to write some pointless puff about growing muscles in vitro for surgical replacement/correction that is most likely complete bollocks.

Some things we know so little about it is futile to attempt to predict utility, you have to have a look inside first before you can even think about that stuff. In this day and age you can't get funding for that stuff very easily.

PZ for eg can I'm sure get funding from the March of Dimes as he can easily sell his stuff as understanding birth defects even if he is actually using teratogens to perturb development to find out about development.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

I agree with Derek above. Basic scientific research is hugely underfunded, resulting in many grant applications being directed to health agencies or disease related charities.
Unless the public can see direct benefits of research coming in a year or two then they are not going to be interested. They don't realize that curing diseases cancer and AIDS requires us to understand gene regulation and cellular networks a lot better than we do at present and that entails a lot of basic research. I can't see an easy answer here. Scientific research is not a good career move for those wishing for what most professionals regard almost as a given (some degree of financial and job security, a mortgage, pension etc).

And of course the very nature of science, nay knowlege itself, is that until you know something, you don't know what it might be good for. In the 20s and early 30s nuclear physics was considerd eggheaded and pure, with no conceivable practical applications.

In grad school, while stopped at a gas station en route to my field site, a fellow in the car next to me asked where I was headed with all "that gear". When I told him I was doing some research on yuccas, he said "Oh, they finally found a use for that plant?". I simply said "Yeah" instead of going on about population genetics, biogeography, and pollination mutualisms.

And my grandfather always asks if I'm looking for a cure for cancer. And if not, I should be.

PZ, shouldn't the "(among other things)" have come after the zebrafish?

I totally agree with you about attempts to make a subject appear relevant. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that whole fields (e.g. conservation genetics, which is really just population genetics) have been created soley to do this.

Err, nobody look up what journals I've published in, please.

Bob

PZ, could you explicate a little more on what you do? To my untutored ear, it sounds like during some part of the developmental process, when "x" is happening, you introduce the organism to alcohol (poison) and then observe the outcome. Then what? How do you work back to understanding the regular process by mucking with it? For example, if I drop alcohol on a cell, I would expect the cell wall to shrivel; it doesn't tell me anything at that level other than cell walls don't like poison.
Anybody?

I think we scientists can shift the focus here all we want and blame the funding situation or public perception. But in the end, we are the ones largely to blame for doing poor jobs at explaining our work to the public and for not having good leadership showing how important basic science is. The fact is, basic science needs to be promoted more and more to the public. Instead, we take the easy way out and unfortunately lie about the applied aspects of our work. I used to complain about this all the time with the human genome project (which is why I started the overselling genomics award). For the human genome project, the leaders simply could not just say "this is the framework for future understanding." They had to say "this will cure all these diseases and save the world." And then when diseases are not cured and the world is not saved, what is the public to believe. Well, I think they rightfully should believe that we are a bunch of liars, plain and simple. And how can we blame them for wanting to take our money away? Yes, the "public" can be hard to deal with and annoying at times. But lets shoulder some responsibility ourselves. When I was in grad. school at Stanford, friends of mine in Paul Ehrlich's lab used to say he drilled them on being able to explain to the public why their research was important. I think this should be a part of all PhD programs.

So how do we change the tide? If a few of us decide not to lie and don't get funding, where do our voices go? Is it made easier or harder with all the translational research facilities springing up?

It's hard to explain to non-science folks why you're researching, say, cannibalism in larval salamanders, because they can't see how it applies to THEM. Gah. Anthropocentrism pisses me off. You can say, "I'm studying this thing that has huge implications for understanding developmental pathways!" and they'll say, "Okay... but what good is it for people?"
Grumble.

Also, Jonathan: I agree 1000%.

Nic: No, the solution is people like me who leave science to pursue science education. :P I'm a dirty traitor.

PZ, could you explicate a little more on what you do? To my untutored ear, it sounds like during some part of the developmental process, when "x" is happening, you introduce the organism to alcohol (poison) and then observe the outcome. Then what? How do you work back to understanding the regular process by mucking with it? For example, if I drop alcohol on a cell, I would expect the cell wall to shrivel; it doesn't tell me anything at that level other than cell walls don't like poison.
Anybody?

I'll give it a stab, Bruce, but I want to be very clear that this is an analogy, not a literal description. It's certainly ok as a first approximation, but when I talk about "solving equations", I don't want to give the false impression that we're so mathematically sophisticated yet about biology that we already know what those equations are, and just have to plug in the values, ok?

Have you ever done algebra on multiple variables, such as, for example:

3x + y = 14

?

If so, then you know that, as it stands, we don't have enough information to determine a unique solution. If you set x to 4 and y to 2, the equation is true, but it is also true if you set x to 5 and y to -1. You can get lots of numbers that can make the equation true, but if you want a unique solution, you need two distinct* equations in this case to make it work out.

* of course, one equation can't be simply multiplying the other one through by a constant; that doesn't bring any additional information.

So, in this analogy, we can think of the "variables" as the genetic products that go into the formation of the anatomic structure (the set of equations). Let's say (again, this is just an analogy) that we have 10,000 variables. How many distinct equations would we need in order to "solve" that set of equations (where "solve" represents how things unfold from soup to nuts)? 10,000, right?

So the way we get different "equations" is, we change something, and see what happens--that gives us an additional "equation" to add to our set. If normal human craniofacial development seems to be associated with certain gene products, looking at other normal development is just like multiplying through by a constant--but change something (different species, disrupt a pathway, whatever) -- then you get a different outcome--a different "equation"--and you get closer to figuring out the "solution" by adding another distinct "equation" to the information you already have. So it narrows down the possibilities of what *can* happen, eliminating some of those other possible solutions, and gets us just a little closer to understanding what is and isn't possible.

Did that analogy work/was it helpful? I'm never quite sure, or whether I'm just really pissing off *real* mathematicians and/or *real* biologists with it.

So how do we change the tide?

I've got a technique I use for this. I'm a neutrino physicist, working on an experiment that gives summer tours of one of our facilities (the MINOS far detector in the Soudan mine of northern Minnesota.. drop by next week and say hi to me!) We always get thoughtful people on our tours, and always they ask good questions.

One question that comes up every time is "what is it good for"? This is a very good question, because it's insanely difficult just to detect them, let alone use them for anything. There's no practical application to our work.

Our professional tour guides have the standard answers in the can: "who knows, but in the far future...", and "there's knock-on technological advance". Of course, both of these answers are unsatisfying. I think the first isn't true, and I think the second is silly: it's like saying we went to the Moon so we could invent Tang.

Instead, I like to give this answer:

"Imagine we didn't know that the earth went around the sun, but still though that the sun went around the earth. What difference would this make to our daily lives, to our technology? Well, our tide tables wouldn't be quite as good. And interplanetary travel would be impossible. Maybe there would be a few problems putting up satellites. But by and large, it would make very little difference to our day-to-day lives.

"But I for one would like to KNOW which way it is. I'd feel pretty stupid if I had it wrong."

Whenever I give this spiel, everyone in the audience gets a little bit of a far-away look in their eyes: I can see them getting it. I think they latched onto the basic reason we do pure research.

I know, I know. The bit about technology and history is wrong.. no Copernicus would have meant no Newton, no calculus, no modern science as we know it, but I think the world where you have electronics but not Einstein is plausible enough for people to see the point.

---Nathaniel

By Nathaniel (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

"it's like saying we went to the Moon so we could invent Tang."

Money well spent.

The problem is is that you scientists should have to explain your research to us, the public. Honestly we are not really going to understand it.

I consider myself a pretty well informed layman. I subscribe to Scientific American and Science News. But I still am not going to truly understand the intricacies of the dozens or hundreds of research projects that are asking for my funding.

We need good, powerful, informed boards of experts to be able to distinguish between a man treating fish embryos with alcohol and another man spilling vodka on his caviar.

By Galbinus_Caeli (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Galbinus_Caeli: Agreed! This is what the field of Public Understanding of Science attempts to do. I am very excited about this thread, because this is ultimately what I want to do with my life. Granted, I am immediately interested in helping the public understand hot topics in science like evolution and global climate change and the importance of biodiversity, but the same methods could be, I think, applied to any type of study.

PUS is huge over in Europe (you can even get a degree in it!), but for some reason not so much in the US. Fortunately, there are small pockets of interest here, and I am lucky to be at a university that is getting pretty active in the discipline. We're about 20 years behind, but I have hope for the future...

I like Nathaniel's answer, but also think the public has a right to decide how much they want to spend on expanding knowledge for its own sake (some of which may turn out to have practical applications) vs. research for which practical applications are more immediately apparent.

My latest post in This Week in Evolution discusses a related question, how to identify "transformative research."

Yeah, I like your answer very much, Nathaniel. You're basically saying there's inherently value in knowledge, rather than knowledge only having value as a means to an end (specifically an end to help people).

Unfortunately that perspective is in short supply. I'm glad to hear some people are being proactive about propagating it.

Galbinus_Caeli wrote in #15: *The problem is is that you scientists should have to explain your research to us, the public. Honestly we are not really going to understand it.*

This is all well and good, as is Jonathan's post #8, but when the tenured faculty give the non-tenured faculty shit during annual reviews for talking to the public too much (four peer-reviewed in a year apparently doesn't outweigh 8 public talks in that same year), we scientists aren't likely to spend all that much additional energy on trying to get across to you what we're really doing. Having the audacity to communicate to the public is commonly viewed as a symptom of not being serious enough about research (depending on the university, much the same can be said about actually giving a shit while teaching). We're told to write papers to the 10 people who will read them and care and above all, bring in overhead dollars. Spending an afternoon trying to talk to high school seniors about what life as a scientist is like is quite often not really valued.

...but also think the public has a right to decide how much they want to spend on expanding knowledge for its own sake...

I think the public gave up the right to decide on matters of science when CBS determined there was an audience for a sixteenth season of Survivor.

MartinC writes

Basic scientific research is hugely underfunded

Is it? How much funding would be adequate? I suspect that the amount of funding and effort currently being spent on basic scientific research dwarfs the amount spent for most of humanity's existence. This seems to be likely on either a total or percentage basis.

By Jeff Alexander (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Having the audacity to communicate to the public is commonly viewed as a symptom of not being serious enough about research (depending on the university, much the same can be said about actually giving a shit while teaching).

God is it refreshing to hear someone else say this!

From #3 above: "Unless the public can see direct benefits of research coming in a year or two then they are not going to be interested. They don't realize that curing diseases cancer and AIDS requires us to understand gene regulation and cellular networks a lot better than we do at present and that entails a lot of basic research. "

This short-sightedness (well put, MartinC) in the general public is exactly what made Sen. William Proxmire and his ridiculous "Golden Fleece" awards so popular a few decades ago. Fortunately, he's gone, but his mentality persists.

From LM (#16): "PUS [public understanding of science]is huge over in Europe (you can even get a degree in it!), but for some reason not so much in the US."

The main reason it's not big on this side of the pond: our culture caters to morons, and the pernicious presence of fundamentalist religion beliefs has an overwhelmingly negative influence on the average Joe's interest in science. Why is the country fixated on Lindsay Lohan and not frank discussions about embryonic stem cell issues? Why is it even necessary to ask presidential hopefuls, during one of their absurd "debates", whether they "believe" in evolution? I've given up on the public and am focusing my hopes and energy on my two kids, who seem to have interest and aptitude in science.

LM wrote: *God is it refreshing to hear someone else say this!*

Heh...I've been waiting for someone on here to say that I'm overstating the situation. During an interview at an Ivy League university, I was once told not to do any public speaking before tenure and that if I put enough time into my classes to be a good instructor, then there was no way I would be doing enough research to get tenure.

Josh: You're not overstating things at all. What you describe is exactly my experience. Outreach and teaching don't bring in any money and aren't "scholarly" or "academic" enough. In other words, they are unimportant. My thinking is, how important can scientific research be if it's confined to a small group of people and never makes it out to those who can ACTUALLY make a difference (i.e., the voting public)?

To return to the initial premise of this thread and "applied" vs "pure" reserach, Cohn's paper acknowledges support from the NIH-(HD054554). I can't be bothered to go on the NIH website and search out what kind of grant this is/was, and perhaps it is some kind of training grant. But if it is funding for research, he would have had to present some kind of angle/benefit for human health to get NIH funding...

Didn't Sagan address this in a Parade article? He pointed out that if Queen Victoria commanded that there should be radio and TV it could not have been done using the tech available early in her reign no matter how much money was spent. It took what was then impractical research on electromagnetic theory to bring about radio and TV.

And Sagan was pretty good at getting people excited about the pleasure of wondering about things and then figuring out how they work.

Is it not enough that a system was created to fund scientific inquiry into things that will never affect the majority of those taxed with funding it? The great unwashed masses have to pony up while you stare into the ass of a jellyfish for hours on end. Must we be bored with your findings as well, or can we choose for ourselves what to find interesting when we are done toiling to pay your grants?

By TwinCities Timmy (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

A. I had a colleague once, while walking out of a meeting, essentially spit on Sagan's grave for not being a "serious enough astronomer."

B. Sagan's niche seems to be rather dramatically unfilled right now.

I think the recent period of endarkenment has led to diminished respect for any kind of knowledge.
The main point all scientists should make to the public is that any advancement in knowledge it worth it for its own sake. I agree with Nathaniel's point above, but disagree with Ford, who says that we should identify and perhaps focus on transformative research. Taking funds away from basic research to focus on transformative research is equivalent to eating our seed corn. In a short time, all science would stop.

Peter Ashby is correct in saying that we know so little about some things, that it is not even possible to dream up practical applications. Here is my favorite example of a big payoff from pure basic research that I use to explain its value to non-scientists:

In the late 1950's and early 1960s' Werner Arber was interested in why the ability of a virus to infect E. coli cells was dependent on the particular strain of E. coli the virus was previously exposed to. Arber realized that something he didn't understand was going on, and he wanted to solve this esoteric puzzle. This question had absolutely no practical applications that anyone could see. As such, today it would likely never be funded, and most non-scientists would consider it a complete waste of money. Nevertheless, this work eventually led to the discovery of restriction enzymes, which cut DNA at specific sites and are the basis for just about all of the multi-billion biotechnology industry.

You know, I'd sometimes really like to turn that sentiment around on people. I get so tired of veiled derision because my research isn't going to cure cancer, or feed the entire globe, or what have you. How much public good does anyone's job do? There are many professions that can be directly linked to making society noticeably better, but it's kind of aggravating when, say, a CEO will look down on a simple basic scientist trying to figure out his or her small corner of the world, when said CEO does what - move paperwork around to increase his or her own profits? Why are scientists the only ones expected to be entirely noble and serve humanity?

Carlie--

As someone in business, I can tell, I don't expect myself or my employees to be entirely noble and serve humanity, but I also don't expect the general public to fund my business through grants and welfare.

That's the primary difference. I am all for science for the sake of science, and I support it when possible. And I am especially supportive of public monies being spent on applied science - specifically improving cancer treatments and outcomes.

As much as I respect Jonathan's and others devotion to the understanding of the natural world it is authoritarian and unfair to force unwilling people to fund this for the sake of some unthought of future gain -- moreso when there are tangible, applicable, and plausible alternatives that we could set those resources upon.

BG--

Let's not pretend that Europe doesn't have its fair share of Lindsay Lohan-esque distractions going on -- quite the opposite. Our trash tabloids are tame compared to the European heavyweights that inspire the US domestic versions. That culture is just as obsessed or even moreso with glamour, glitz, status and celebrity than the states.

Can you really see no reason why the public in general is turned off by a group of people perpetually promising everything and delivering substantially less, constantly asking for more money while decrying every perceived slight, and angirly representing that everyone not belonging to the group to be morons, buffons, zealots, or mentally insufficent?

Scientists can feel free to tune out the general public, but just don't come whining when more Bushes are elected, more funds are cut, and funding basic science is replaced with other priorities.

Thalarctos (#12);

Yes, thanks, your analogy was helpful. (Sorry everyone, for being OT, BTW.)
I manage geeks for a living. A problem in our business is defined as not fitting a (previously) known solution or framework. We're working towards a known quantity i.e. sale able data. In a sense, it is sorta like cretinists having the answer first and trying to match data to it. (Another aside: AIIEEEE! I'm like them! ONOZ!) You're talking about understanding functions (of gene expressions) through experimentation rather than finding "an answer".

Okay, I'm having some problems expressing myself now and I need to go away and use my think bone on this. At a meta level, I think that my question is of the type that other non-scientists may have about the process of science.
Thank you.

You know, I'd sometimes really like to turn that sentiment around on people. I get so tired of veiled derision because my research isn't going to cure cancer, or feed the entire globe, or what have you. How much public good does anyone's job do?

Carlie, I've talked to my dad about that, and apparently that debate goes on inside his own head. He's "only" a software engineer, you see, and to his mind that doesn't help humanity a whole hell of a lot - whereas my mother was a therapist (who directly helped many people improve their lives) and consequently, he feels at times that he went down the wrong path.

I understand that, but when he takes a ride on that train of thought he overlooks one very important and obvious fact. He's not only a software engineer - he's a father, son, brother, friend, neighbor, musician, and little-league coach among other things, and he makes a positive impact on quite a few people in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with his chosen profession.

My point is, measuring the worth of a person's output by taking account only of their day job yields an inaccurate result anyway. Furthermore, anybody who's ever taken penicillin, or had a loved one emerge from the chaotic depths of bipolar disorder with the aid of lithium, should have an appreciation of what can come from the happy accidents that can occur during the research process.

Why are scientists the only ones expected to be entirely noble and serve humanity?

Well hey, you know, if we don't dictate their activities, and watch them every minute, scientists are just gonna go engage in some kind of pure evil! They always do!

dh (#31) -

I think you have it exactly backwards. Public monies should be spent doing things that private money cannot do. If there is a clear path to a cure for cancer, or some other tangible benefit, industry should do it. Pure research with no apparent benefit other than pushing back the frontiers of knowledge is less likely to appeal to business interests. However, without this pure research, the basis for future discoveries dries up rapidly. Because this type of research is esssential to keep society moving forward, and because private industry cannot or will not do it, the government should support it.

but I also don't expect the general public to fund my business through grants and welfare.

So your business doesn't take corporate tax cuts?

This is your zebrafish.

This is your zebrafish on drugs.

You're doing a lot for the zebrafish community.

Tex -- you are exactly right.

It's the job of industry to fund 'specific' application driven research - which *may* have other spin-offs in basic understanding but the intent is 'something real to sell'.

It's the job of government (or philanthropists) to fund basic research - and by basic I mean 'no agenda'. I'd rather see scientists paid to 'noodle' than see them try to think their way into 'future applications'. If they're doing the latter, they're not doing enough of the former!

And I'd rather they didn't do it to be noble.... but because it's cool and they love it.

'One question that comes up every time is "what is it good for"?'

What is quantum physics good for? That's the problem. Basic science is at the heart of all technological advance. Without quantum physics, you don't have modern society.

But there's no way to know ahead of time what basic science will be good for. It just is beautiful. In biology, the huge bias is that research is funded by the NIH, the National Institutes of Health. And so biology advances much more slowly than it should, because after giving some BS answer in grants enough times, you will be subtly affected to chase "cures" rather than science.

Science has to be open-ended. It should be up to industry to make short term applications. If Planck were in biology today, he'd be trying to build TV sets and radar dishes instead of studying the underpinnings of physics. And inevitably he would fail in his goal, because without those underpinnings, the applications would be impossible.

I am no fan of the science via press release structure currently in place, but I reluctantly accept that it is the way most adults are exposed to science. Here is one way (with a more legit public interest slant) that the system seems to have worked:

We in the upper left of the country are in the midst of a media enhanced showdown between Science and Disney. Remember that report a week ago about "Baby Einstein" not actually helping kids learn? The original paper was published by a University of Washington group, they issued the press release, Disney asked the UW President to change or retract the release, and UW Pres said No! It's nice to see the administration supporting the faculty! What will happen next?

If this interests you, I've got more on my blog. But really, that's about it. I wonder if Disney will sue.

As one of those persons who HAS put out a press release on their scientific research, I can tell you, never will do that again.

It's not about putting it in terms that the public can understand. It's that even after putting very blunt statements about how certain parts have not been made and it is still highly speculative, I got a bunch of crap asking "so have you made any of this yet?"

This wasn't an issue of scientific literacy, it was just a matter of reading simple english.

PZ, My doctor thinks alcohol is therapeutic, good for the heart (I am not a fish). Is alcohol good for the fish too?

Maybe Muslims hate the West because they watch us being happy enjoying alcohol, which is strictly forbidden to them. A few glasses of Finlandia vodka may dissolve El Kaida.

I think that this...

Ford #17: I like Nathaniel's answer, but also think the public has a right to decide how much they want to spend on expanding knowledge for its own sake (some of which may turn out to have practical applications) vs. research for which practical applications are more immediately apparent.

is partially countered by this...

Frog #40: What is quantum physics good for? That's the problem. Basic science is at the heart of all technological advance. Without quantum physics, you don't have modern society.

Frog, Tex, and others above are pointing out the 'unexpected consequences' clause - you don't know where research will lead, so it's good to just pursue everything. Anyone who ever watched "The Day The World Changed" knows that the history of scientific development has got little to do with searching for practical uses.

... but I don't think this is the whole picture. Although nuclear physics has led to some very important (good AND evil) technologies, it is very hard to point to similar advances in modern particle physics.. say, anything since the 1960s. And it's VERY hard to point to anything Astronomy and Astrophysics have done other than make pretty pictures. Although I could cop out and say that ultimately, finding the Higgs particle may be the foundation for some futuristic technology, ultimately I just don't think this is true.

That is.. in my opinion, even as a particle physicist, I don't think it's worth betting money and resources on the field as a long-term investment. I think that practically speaking, it's a long shot.

But I also think that, lacking a god, humans need to find reasons to exist other than mindless self-replication. I think that the reason is search for how the hell we came to be here and what the hell this place we call the Universe is. I think that it's a noble goal in of itself.

Then the question becomes not IF we fund this stuff, but WHEN we fund it. But the answer to that one IS practical: if we don't start, we'll never finish. At the very least, we need living memory of how to do this research, which means that at the very least you need to keep _some_ research going, and you probably want to keep feeding the flames slowly.

Going back to Ford: even if the lay public agreed with this, which I don't think they do, I don't think they would be able to appreciate the delicate balance involved in long-term interest and short-term capital expediture. I sure as hell don't.

---Nathaniel

By Nathaniel (not verified) on 17 Aug 2007 #permalink

I always laugh when I see a scientist on TV stating that their research will cure cancer. A good friend of mine used to work on equine breath testing for gastric and pulmonary problems, and was once interviewed for Daily Planet. She said on camera that her work had the potential to detect human lung cancer and overtake blood tests in clinical use. She admitted to me that she was basically co-erced into saying that by the interviewers, who wanted a more human angle!

My own press release / science journalism pet peeve is a bit more specific!

Remember there is always Faraday's answer about the use of electricity. He answered "What use is a baby? You have to wait until it grows up."

I think careful, good, history of science lessons can help cure this distortion, but I have no idea how to increase interest in such matters.