Psychological warfare: innovating science out of the gutter

This great article about science blogging and how to combine it with a successful career in academia suggests writing positive posts (e.g. “this article is really great, this is why I love it”), which I was planning to do. I could also tag it with my research blogging account! Yeah, but not yet. Not in THIS post.

Instead I’m going to talk more about the problems of science and why we waste money on the wrong things and the wrong people. I swear, eventually I will stop complaining about this, especially when I really probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. But I came across these two articles that I think do a great job of explaining what we SHOULD be doing and thought I would share the wealth.

A government center for drug discovery? by the Curious Wavefunction

In which he suggests the backwards study of drugs that have gone through trials and are proven to work, but no one knows why. Specifically he mentions Thorazine for schizophrenia and lithium for bipolar disorder. He targets them as “the only two breakthrough treatments for mental illness”, which sounds reasonable and I am choosing to believe it, though this is the first I’ve heard of such a claim.

Although my physics-oriented mind has always preferred the idea of understanding what’s going on (e.g. genome, structures, pathways, etc.) and then logically try to manipulate that to cure disease. The fact is, we are a long way off from that sort of understanding (not to mention avoiding side effects is very difficult with that research design), and what the curious wavefunction suggests is probably much more valuable and feasible.

Too many roads not taken from the February 10 issue of Nature

This article points out a huge flaw in the way we do science, which they suggest is a side effect of how we have designed our meritocracy to depend on publication. Because people are pushed to publish as quickly as possible, they study proteins that already have tools set up to study them. So a very few proteins get fast tracked while others get ignored, despite their biomedical relevance.

To add my own view to this, I don’t think it is an entirely publication-based flaw. In order to become a PI you have to have done a PhD and a post-doc been successful and gone on to write grants that look feasible in order to get hired. All of this probably means most people are doing research that is really a decade behind the cutting edge because it has been proven that it can be done. This is not necessarily a problem, I guess, since productive research still comes from it. Except it leads to this mentality where we forget that the proteins we know how to study may not be the best ones to study anymore. I think that many scientists are perfectly willing to take high risk projects, as long as they are in the mindset to think of them. Hopefully this Nature article will have put more people in that mindset.

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