Thoughts on returning to work

3 January, 2006

Back at the lab today. One email links to this article: it seems that scientists often reinvent the wheel and do too MUCH research on some topics, wasting time, money and patient goodwill.

Not a surprise, and the timing of this finding is not a surprise either. US biomedical science fought for, and got, a doubling of the NIH budget in the 1990s. The doubling completed just as war and counterterrorism became budget priorities, so what would have been a fairly natural weight loss as the pressure was removed became a crash diet. Science budgets–heck, all non-defense budgets, I imagine–are being looked at very closely for signs of flab.

And there’s a lot of flab in science. I was trained by researchers who came of age in the 70s and 80s when the postwar ivory-tower exploratory culture of science was still strong.  When I started graduate school, one could easily find people from this era doing “pure” basic research, that is, research that is not aimed at curing disease but at understanding biology. It’s far less easy now, as biomedical science retools from a knowledge- to a product-producing venture.

What’s interesting is how this retooling will happen, whether top-down or bottom-up changes will be more important. Big journals may start requiring researchers to justify their work as a barrier to submission, but the urge to repeat an experiment yourself is not an illogical one; the scientific method is implicitly based on the idea that only a replicable finding is valid.

One large problem here, identified by the WP article and the journals it writes about, is that it’s impossible to get a handle on the literature for ANY field. I am very encouraged by natural-language processing algorithms that try to address this problem and read the literature for you. I read an editorial in the British Medical Journal today about Google Scholar and how it doesn’t go far enough, and how a tool designed specifically for biomedical science would be a fabulous resource. Undoubtedly–“diagnosis by google” would very likely be more reliable than seeing an actual doctor.

The sci-fi future of the past (robot doctors! wireless telephony! electronic cars!) is upon us.


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