Biology:Big or little?

Big science, with very few exceptions (one being the Human Genome Project), is a waste of money.1 Big science is grossly inefficient, and is designed to impress non-scientists (including university administrators). Anyone who has experienced the difference between forced collaborations (big science) and real collaborations (spontaneous, as-needed interactions) knows this is true.

Basic research does lead to cures for diseases as well as other improvements in quality of life. Big science enriches a few empire builders but produces nothing.

Contrary to Steven Wiley's claim, Congress does not respond to the voters. The voters have said for decades they want more money spent on medical research. Congress responds to lobbyists and they respond to money. We need better lobbyists.

Biomedical research in the United States is now in a state of crisis from which it may not recover. Diverting money from real science into flashy projects may...

Big science enriches a few empire builders but produces nothing.

Basic biomedical research is not facing extinction because of the National Institutes of Health "Roadmap." It is in trouble because the system has an unlimited capacity to absorb resources and an over-reliance on one model of science. While the scientific establishment has tried to make a case that bottom-up science is health research, I think that a certain disenchantment with this connection is emerging in Congress and maybe with the public.

Big science enriches a few empire builders but produces nothing.

"Big biology," which few appear to really understand, offers the possibility of quickly providing a low-resolution picture of how the unannotated portion of the genome and proteome might function as a system along with the deep knowledge already developed in limited areas. Thus, bottom-up and top-down science are really not incompatible; they are complementary. Alone, the bottom-up approach is extremely inefficient. Failed hypotheses are rarely published and likely are tested over and over again. Because it must also proceed by a chain of interconnected hypotheses from what is known, bottom-up science is slow and breakthroughs are a matter of luck. Yet, without mechanistic hypothesis testing, the top-down approach never reaches certainty.

Thus, I agree with Steven Wiley. Big biology is here to stay, and we should welcome it because it will allow us to focus our efforts on significant societal problems by rapidly identifying genes or proteins among the half of the genome that is poorly annotated that play a role in biological processes. I wonder if perhaps that is threatening to many in our community who have come to view the public's largesse as a right, not a privilege.

Robert Hurst
Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center
Oklahoma City, OK


1. S. Wiley, "Big biology is here to stay," The Scientist, 21(8):27, August 2008.

Sanctions, just part of the solution

While I agree that harsh sanctions are necessary when fraud is discovered,1 I would suggest that this will have only a limited effect. Most people who falsify data (and who commit crimes in general) are not expecting to get caught. They may be right. The amount of undiscovered fraud is difficult to estimate.

I would suggest first that most courses on research ethics have limited effectiveness. It's hard to do this well, and perhaps naive to believe that a single class is sufficient. Ethical conduct has to be emphasized throughout the entire curriculum.

I would also suggest that data collection systems should be designed to minimize the opportunity for fraud. Data collection needs to be easily auditable and regularly audited. Laboratory scientists already do quite a bit here, but even more effort is needed. As a statistician, I am strongly in favor of this, because even in the absence of fraud easily auditable systems enhance data quality.

Finally, the system needs to have strong protection for whistleblowers. They are subject to serious coercion, and unless the system protects good faith reports of potential fraud, there will be a strong disincentive to reporting.

Steve Simon
P. Mean Consulting
Leawood, KS


1. M. Scudellari, "Grad student falsified data," The Scientist NewsBlog, August 5, 2008

A robot with a real 'brain'?

I think this robot that operates on rat brain tissue1 will help us understand the brain by providing a more controlled environment. It is not a brain yet by any definition, but it's a step in the right direction.

Ethically, the only real concern I see is if in the future (a far away future at that) we produce a thinking being with emotions and such. How we respond to that is important. I am not saying that we should stop; it is simply something to be aware of. Let's try to avoid any knee-jerk response to the ethics involved with any of this research.

Joshua Sloan
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA


1. A. Gawrylewski, "A robot with a real brain," The Scientist NewsBlog, August 14, 2008

Dr. Mom - To the lab, STAT

In response to the article "Dr. Mom,"1 At least if you are working in academia, you may have the option of part-time work, which seems like the ideal way of keeping your scientific career ticking whilst not becoming a stranger to your children.

If you are working in industry, however, this is not an option. I was forced to leave my industrial career rather than have my baby son in daycare for 12 hours/day. My (apparently family-friendly) workplace tried to railroad me back into full time work, then paid me to leave when I refused.

I don't regret my decision but there seems to be no way back to a science career from here.

Jill Cooper
Auckland, New Zealand

A career in science is not an easy path to take as a woman. In my case, my wife and I waited to have a baby until my wife almost finished her degree. When she got a job, it did not get any easier. Fortunately, I could babysit for a year or so when she started her career (I became a post-postdoc babysitter). Now, I am in academia with a nine-month contract, and I try to spend as much time with my teenaged children as I can.

Nothing is easy, especially with the higher degree. Employers have expectations. For many years, my two children were with babysitters all day. My wife and I were lucky enough that our advisors (through both of our doctorates and postdocs) were very understanding. I think that it is fairly important to find a lab and employer that have a full understanding and respect of your family life.

Taek H. You
Campbell University
Buies Creek, NC


1. V. Fogg, "Dr. Mom," The Scientist NewsBlog, August 22, 2008

An inspiring success story

I am highly impressed by the wonderful success story of Justin Jefferson, who grew up in public housing then successfully pursued research as an undergraduate.1

In developing nations, there are so many (rather numerous) such examples. People lived in complete illiteracy for several generations, replete with stringent food shortages, miseries and other climatic hardships. Now their descendants are very good scientists, administrators and even politicians. This all depends upon the personal acumen, IQ, and efforts of a person. The story of Jefferson, who is a blend of intelligence and diligence, will be a guide for many have-nots.

Ram Sihag
CCS Haryana Agricultural University
Hisar, India


1. J. Jefferson, "A head start," The Scientist, 21(8):25, August 2008.

In the article on the winners from the Life Science Industry Awards (22[9]:64-8, 2008), the category of the Best Cell Biology Kits and Reagents was omitted. The winner is Invitrogen. The Scientist regrets the error.

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