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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ben Franklin

I watched an old documentary on Ben Franklin last night. As a young man he owned and operated print shops and newspapers and made a lot of money at it. He was editor, writer, and printer. Currently, newspaper editors go to meetings and review union dispute contracts and so on. The point is that people did not have as much information to deal with back then. Ben Franklin could do all of the above jobs because each one was managable. As populations grow and industries grow more details get spread out to the point that no one really knows the whole story.

After Franklin turned 42 he decided to quit running his businesses and focus his time on science. This was during a time when most scientists were men of liesure. They were amatuers who were amusing themselves by observing nature and trying to discover something no one had yet discovered. Franklins field was electricity. Like other amatuer scientists he had to make much of his own equipment. He relied upon his understanding of electricity to create electrodes and electron generators. He ended up getting famous from harnessing this energy and telling about it in a manner far different than the way scientists talk today. He gave us the lightning rod which is still in use today, unchanged from Franklins time.

Scientists today are paid to do science. Most of the profit generated from science comes from selling scientists equipment and kits. I have sat in meetings where a scientist will describe how he developed an assay. Step one, purchase assay. Step two, change a few buffers. Step three, use charts and graphs to describe the postive effects of the changes. Controls optional.

In Ben Franklins time it appeared that the scientists were the ones in the lab observing and doing experiements. They did not have to keep notebooks if they didn't want to. They occasionally caused themselves harm such as when Ben shocked himself unconcious accidentally while revving up enough volts to try and kill a turkey. Some scientists were extremely diligent when it came to measurements. Some were more qualitative when studying completely unknown phenomena. They all worked because so much was unknown and knowledge was ripe for the picking. Who wouldn't want to wake up, dream up ways of testing ideas and watch the results happen first hand? For this Ben Franklin gave up running his business and spent ten years pursuing. The end results were very successful and rewarding.

Back to biotechnology, the cargo cult science industry. You've got 100 billion dollars and PhDs from the finest universities. You've also got the research from the universities flowing out with zero resistance from the schools. There is money and there are the nations best educated people working every day to contribute to scientific progress. Where are the results?

In this Benjamin Franklin documentary there were dramatizations of Ben and his comrades standing around the lab watching experiments from start to finish. There was a parlor game that they performed where everyone would hold hands in a circle. At one end of the circle someone held the cathode. At the other, someone would touch the anode and everyone in the circle would get a cute little shock all at the same time. Watching everyone jump at the same time, some hair sticking up, was of great entertainment value in those days. People wanted to see the results first hand.

These days we have computers. We have computer software that sets up graphs, runs statistical analysis and so on. Meetings are always held in board rooms. Never, even in small companies, do PhD scientists hold meetings in laboratories where the work is done. No one goes to the laboratory bench to watch any part of an experiment. In the board room, computer screen up on the wall thanks to the latest technology from Microsoft, graphs are shown, one after the other. They are meant to explain the binding powers of antibodies or the knock-down effect of siRNA. They show the "score" of an arthritic set of mice, with and without the next big anti-arthritus drug.

In my previous job there were several boxes of dead mice sitting in jars of formaldehyde, waiting to be "scored" for their degrees of arthritus. The problem was that you didn't need to be a great scientist to tell that nothing had happened. The work would have taking weeks and very little would have came of it. Worst of all you would have the charts and graphs to prove it, blasted up on that board room wall where the scientists would look on with disapproval of these uninteresting results. They didn't want to watch the mice get the injections. They didn't want to monitor the disease progression. They didn't want to help score the mice. They wanted the results, up on the board with bar graphs. Arthritus was measured by the height of a bar on a graph sitting next to another bar that represents the drug affect. A smaller bar meant less arthritus.

They never did get the siRNA cure for arthritus. As in most science project they slowly let it fade away, hoping that no one noticed. As a corporation they do not have to tell the scientific community anything about their work. Failure is described to non-scientific investors and par for the course. Got to keep the pipeline diversitified, just like a stock portfolia. Some things just don't work. You understand. And slowly billions and billions of dollars disappear. It's not an easy living, but it beats getting in that lab and testing your ideas in front of others. That type of work requires real scientists who want to see what is happening. Like Ben.

1 comment:

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