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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Should Science Be More Boring?

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get. -Warren Buffet

Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value. -Albert Einstein

One of my favorite watchdogs of science is Retraction Watch. They have taken a far better path than I to point out the fly in the ointment of scientific research. In our common way of thinking, scientists are the most honest people in the world. Their discoveries have led to all of our modern comforts, including life saving medicines. As a result the general public has come to think of scientists much the same as they used to think of religious figures. If a scientist publishes a paper on his/her work in a scientific journal it must be Gods honest truth. How else could the scientist have gone through such rigorous judgements to get their work accepted? Retraction Watch is not saying how or why. They simply shine a light on the things that scientists and publishers got wrong. And that is a good thing!

Many people choose to criticize the whole concept of pointing out negatives in a positive world such as scientific work. For example, in the recent Tweet "Science Should Be More Boring" the following responses were posted:

True but in today's marketplace it is not very practical. -Elizabeth Leary

Who's gonna pay the bills with boring articles? -Sheila Shakoor

Agree but that will mean fewer science stories. Unsurprising research is less newsworthy. -Simon McGrath

As much as I agree with publishing negative results, the marketing here stinks. Will Dichtel

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system.

Aerodynamics, to most people, would be considered boring. The thing is, it is pretty damned important in the wealth of our system versus the wealth of the cargo cult system. The fact that civilized societies have useful things like airplanes is due to boring science. It is not boring however to the people who tend to obsess over understanding how things fly. The real question that follows from the above four comments is what is boring and what kind of non-reproducible science is preferable?

If you send an underling into the laboratory to conduct an experiment on the basic science on the Zeka virus, do you allow for that person to bring you results that they feel will best suit their career ambitions? Or do you expect them to present to you a completely transparent and clearly articulated accounting of what took place in the lab? At what point do we allow the above ideas (on practicality, bill paying, newsworthiness and the marketing of science) take precedence?

To link this concept to a real life biotech situation I must bring up the price of Seattle biotech investment and the value that has been returned. It was the marketing that raised the money to pay the price of funding the companies. It was the value created that led to the vast graveyard of failed companies.

If Sheila Shakoor came to me with an idea for a biotech start-up I would have to wonder, does she have good science as a foundation for her new company or has she been focused on paying the bills? If Simon McGrath has 300 publications on his resume should I be concerned about his focus on newsworthy research? As for Elizabeth and Will, I would ask them to stay in their side of the office and leave the science of the company up to the scientists.

The best comment from this tween was from Stephano Tonzani, "My prof of math methods for physicist once said "for researchers, science is boring 364 days of the year."

I do not find any of this boring. What makes science... science? Reproducibility is one way of truly assessing the value of published work. This idea is also one that meets great resistance among career minded scientists. But if you scroll through the latest postings from Retraction Watch you will find this article from Andrew Gelman.
Whatever the vast majority of retractions are, they’re a tiny fraction of the number of papers that are just wrong — by which I mean they present no good empirical evidence for their claims.
As someone who had to use these papers on a daily basis to conduct "newsworthy" research in the field of biopharma, I am far from bored when I read these words. For thirteen years I struggled with non-reproducible research and an inflexible chain of command that insisted the outcomes be true. In order to put wealth into our system we must change the attitude that subjective valuations on boring versus practical is what matters. Boring science can also be non-reproducible useless information. What matters is not the success of getting published. What matters is the value of the published paper.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check blockquote/indents (dash after "Will Dichtel", blockquoted next)