The Last Act

My final editorial.

Ten problems I believe could bollix biology in years to come.

After seven-and-a-half years as editor, and with 130-plus editorials behind me, I’m facing the tyranny of the blank page for the final time: my last editorial.

How lucky I’ve been to be editor of this publication at this time. I often think of the poor editor of a glossy golf magazine who talked at a publishing meeting a couple of years ago. His comments went something like this: “We have three types of content: Where to play golf, what to play golf with, and how to play golf. Of these, the third is of far the most interest to readers, but the advice has been essentially unchanged since the magazine started in 1959. We are in a constant search for new ways to say the same thing”.

Our quandary at The Scientist is the opposite: With so much going on in the life sciences, how do we choose what to include and what to leave out? Not such a bad problem.

I could sign off with a description of how enjoyable and fulfilling this job has been (it has). Or by praising the talented group of colleagues—friends, in fact—that I have had the pleasure of working with (they are outstanding). Or by acknowledging the daring of the two co-owners who showed so much faith in me (much appreciated). Or by wondering at the power and beauty of science, and at the talent and dedication of hundreds of thousands of people devoted to discovery and its useful application, which I’ve been able to appreciate from close quarters (it has been awe-inspiring).

Instead, being true to my Scottish roots, I thought I’d give you a list of problems, potential flies in the ointment for the life sciences in the years ahead. Ignore the following at your peril.

1. Disengaged youngsters. No classroom experiments plus no role models equals no interest in science among the people who we want to replace us in years to come.

2. Corporate stupidity/greed. Exempting the R&D level (in needed areas such as vaccine research, "Nice Shot"), Big Pharma companies often do the wrong thing, and have the wrong motivations. So do Agbio companies.

3. Misplaced opposition from consumers to “Frankenfoods”. They are being misled: GM crops can provide quality produce at high yields without the application of chemicals, and without endangering anyone.

4. Uninterested students. Many of the best graduates rebuff a research career, lured by medicine or law or business.

5. Dramatic growth in sales of homeopathic and other ineffective “medicines.” These waste money, endanger lives and can discredit the entire field of drug discovery.

6. Misbehaving scientists. Misconduct takes a toll on the public trust, in addition to directly damaging science. We need strong codes of practice, transparency and stiff penalties.

7. Unhappy postdocs. More recognition and better career plans are needed for early career scientists, otherwise they’ll leave research for good.

8. Crafty animal rights activists. They are taking more sophisticated, long-term approaches to stop essential research. For instance, just last month Oklahoma State University administrators halted an approved study of anthrax vaccines at a new BSL-3 facility because it would have sacrificed baboons.

9. Creationism. It just won’t go away. In this issue ("Should Evolutionary Theory Evolve?"), we depict an ongoing debate over whether to formally expand our codified understanding of evolutionary theory, based on new information from epigenetics and other emerging fields. Scientists should be able to acknowledge ways to improve the theory without giving fodder to those who want to discredit it altogether.

10. A lack of politeness in scientific debate. See Steve Wiley’s column ("Mind Your Manners"). It’s an epidemic.

And there will be plenty of other issues for the new editor, Sarah Greene, to sink her teeth into as she takes over the best job in science publishing.

I wish her, The Scientist, and our readers, all the best.

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