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Saturday, May 20, 2006


Get it? Counter-culture? The counter to the cargo cult? Like a beatnik or a hippy, there have to be scientists out there who would love to get away from the culture of modern day science. Where are the radical scientists who believe in the aneuploidy-cancer hypothesis? Where are the scientists who pursue ideas that are untested. One norm in biotech science these days involves looking for antibodies against known targets and patenting your antibody as a drug against the known disease. Another norm involves using siRNA in the same manner, to eliminate a known target protein. That just doesn't rise to the level of science. It's more like baking cookies. Someone may have a good recipe but it doesn't involve too much clever thinking. Intellectually there have got to be people starving to death due to a lack of interesting projects to think about. Where are the goddamned scientists who can think up their own projects? Chances are, those types of people are horrible at getting funding. Going out and getting government grants or venture capital money is not an interesting thing to roll around your brain unless you are more interested in money than in the natural world.

There has always been a counter culture. Early caveman drawings were probably countered by young people with cheap materials smeared on cave walls where only young cave people gathered. Perhaps this is an important part of the evolution of ideas. Good ideas start but are quickly taken over by the powers that be. Only the young and older, off-center, people venture to make changes to the status quo. If you have a stake in maintaining the status quo, such as having a hefty mortgage, you'll do what the group is doing in order to keep your house. If you don't feel included in the group or you don't want to be a part of it, you'll work against the tide. Maybe you'll protest the war, you'll write a book without first obtaining a PhD in english, you'll quit eating meat, you'll take up Buddhism in a Christian society, you'll take up Christianity in a Buddhist society, you'll be a scientist in a religious society...

Here is a simple example of changing the thinking surrounding the norm. I've mentioned siRNA research before. Has anyone ever thought about the consequences of the proposed mechanism of action? The second law of thermodynamics suggests that if order is created in one part of the universe then a greater amount of disorder is created somewhere else. In siRNA then, what happens if you knock down the activity of a protein? The popular concept is that the only possible outcome is that a person becomes healthier. What is the most lethal siRNA? Is it a 20 nucleotide sequence that will kill C-elagans? Is it a double stranded piece of RNA with a hairpin loop that will prevent ears of corn from growing out of a stalk? Most of the status quo research in this field involves known targets, siRNA selected by internet based tools, and low paid technicians. Who would have the guts to make a grant proposal where you claim you are going to seek out deadly siRNA. Maybe you want to create a cancer by stopping a cell cycle regulator. Maybe you just don't know exactly where you're going but you are going to start with stem cells and some gene mutation tools.

Radical science, like radical youth movements, is going to be discouraged by those who have established the norm or at least by those who benifit from the norm. Imagine living in Alabama in 1964, your hair is trimmed nicely, your glasses the latest fashion, your clothes sharp like everyone else around you. Then one day Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drive through your town. They are traveling in an old school bus painted in a hundred bright colors. They are dressed as jesters and fairies throwing flowers and blowing bubbles. They don't have jobs to go to. Yet they are living life in America. They are seeing your town where you will probably never see theirs. You have to ask yourself, is their way of living meaningful? Chances are, having grown up in a small Alabama town, you prefer your ways. You like having a job and a family that you support. You are clean and safe. You travel a couple times a year but you get to come home to a stable world that you like. Who are these hippies to come around here being different, jumping around as if they are here to show us a better way of living? Your kids however might see it as a new and exciting prospect. They are secure in their world so they can come back if they don't like the new way. There is an alternative lifestyle that they can try. There is no harm in trying new things.

Now imagine an old scientist. He works at the University, he writes grant proposals, teaches classes and does a little research. He submits papers, reviews papers, serves on PhD committees and all of the other stuff. Along comes a kid whose parents left him a billion dollars. He skips college and starts his own lab where he does research to prove HIV doesn't cause AIDS. He brings in Peter Duesburg and supports his work on the aneuploidy-cancer hypothesis. He starts his own journal because no one else will publish him. He starts a philosophy organisation that discusses how things like N-rays or anything that Robert Gallo ever did could happen. All of the grad students can be found reading the journal in spite of your efforts to put it down. One day something useful comes out of the lab and the journal. Big deal you think, anyone can get lucky. Your young grad students might be tempted to go off on the new path but if they know what's best they'll stay with you. Maybe they'll be gone for awhile but they'll be back. You offer the safety just like the family man with a good job in Alabama. The counter culture is reckless.

The system is currently set up such that it really would take a rich kid with a billion dollars and an interest in science to overcome the obstacles in the way of a radical science movement. Most rich kids these days however are not science kids. Their positions in society lead them to other pursuits. They may become philanthropists but they will only support the status quo. They may become capitalists but they too only support the status quo. The status quo dictates that lots of money must be spent to do science and it must lead to the generation of more money. I've mentioned how biotech has taken 100 billion and reduced it to 60 billion so far. As in any Cargo Cult, the lack of success does not deter the followers and those in charge. The counter cult would simply seek out advances in understanding of living organisms. They would work to accurately measure what is going on inside the body. There would be no need for profit, just pure joy in discovering new things. Of course in the end there would be much that could be commercialized but the hippy scientist would not be interested. He's got a billion dollar padding that prevents him from commercial influence. He's got a disdain for suits and ties making shit up so they can sell drugs.

The radical science would not require as much money. I just threw a billion dollars out there to make us all feel safe. Ideas are more powerful than money if they are based on fact. Radical science would become the target of criticism by some of our best critics. Yet imagine a movement where an explanation for the 40 billion dollars loss in biotech could be analyzed. Imagine aneuploidy research explaining a very basic concept in cancer. Imagine a bunch of young people sitting around reducing the status quo science down to easy to understand concepts that have flaws. Imagine young people getting excited about science because there is a counter culture that has the ability to chop down the tall trees in a forest of arrogant old ideas.

Imagine old Bob Gallo, picking lint from his pin striped suit as he tells everyone how he was the most cited scientist of his day. Along comes a young kid in jeans and a T-shirt who points out that Bob was wrong and that he lead a lot of people to the wrong conclusions. The young kid has cured AIDS and has shown that the emperor (Bob) has no clothes. AIDS, cancer, malaria, alzheimers, baldness, and the list goes on. These are things that science doesn't have a clue about. They are on a path that involves simple concepts wrapped in hard to understand terminology that arrogant men and women love to use. A counter culture is needed to bring life back into the world of science. Excitement is needed. Currently it is dying. Money is the goal and failure is the result. We need that billion dollar kid willing to support this cause. Think of that billion dollar investment as Ken Keseys bus. The billion dollar radical science movement might just fizzle out but for young people it could symbolize the freedom to think again. You take that education they give you and get rid of the things you think are bullshit. Think your own thoughts and nevermind what the elders say.

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