Well it seems that public opinion is once again at odds with that of the scientific community. What a surprise.
This episode is about the emergence of nanotechnology and how quickly its advances should be thrown to the public. The public, it seems, would like these new nano-products to become available to them as quickly as possible. Researchers demand more testing due to the fact that we really don’t know the biological risks associated with nano-sized materials. Ah yes, the old story of the inventor being forced into releasing his invention before its been properly tested. There is no way that this could turn into a class 5 zombie attack *cough*iamlegend*cough*
So is this a case of us mighty scientists having to protect the public from themselves like dogs begging for a piece of chocolate? If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know my stance on this.
THIS IS OUR FAULT
“But Jon, how can this one possibly be our fault? All we want to do is protect people,” you say?
Well maybe next time when there is an advance in science, we shouldn’t tout it as the answer to all of the problems in the world. Nanoscience is absolutely important and has shown great advances in fields such as silicon chips and medical testing. This does not mean it is ok to shout all successes from the rooftops while never informing people about the dangers involved. It is not fair to ask people to be truely skeptical about these things because most people do not have the education necessary to even be wary of anything that might be small enough to bypass a cell membrane. It is true that we don’t have definitive evidence to say that these materials are harmful, but it is still our responsibility to make sure that anything that will be in contact with people is safe for them to be in contact with.
An easy rebuttal to my argument will undoubtedly be that it is not the researchers who hyped up nanoscience but the media. While this begs the question of who hyped it to the media, I would rather go straight to the more important where are all the toxicity studies? I have not come across a single dedicated toxicity study on the effects of nano-materials on human cells, and it’s not for lack of looking. I’m sure there are some, but the fact that we expect average people to realize the possible negative effects of a new matierial while I (someone who atleast knows where to look for this sort of thing) can’t find anything better than “we are unsure of possible negative effects” is utterly irresponsible.
Corley, E., Scheufele, D., & Hu, Q. (2009). Of risks and regulations: how leading U.S. nanoscientists form policy stances about nanotechnology Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 11 (7), 1573-1585 DOI: 10.1007/s11051-009-9671-5
*A class 5 zombie invasion involves most of mankind turning, while few fight for survival. Class 4 only involves maybe a city, alla Resident Evil, while classes 1-3 are usually more of a Zombies Ate my Neighbors situation (smaller infection, zombies easily dispatched with water guns)
The number one rule is business is to please the people who write the checks. We in the scientific community like to believe that “business” notions like profitability and compromise play a minute role in the direction of research, and that projects are undertaken in an effort to improve mankind. This is a fantasy thanks to one simple fact – the scientific community is not writing the checks.
If we don’t decide what to research, who does?
90% of the time the answer to this question is going to be big business. There are a great many industries that are to be held accountable, but for the sake of this argument I would like to use Big Pharma (Merck, DuPont, Pfizer, etc…). In 2004 Pfizer alone spent $7.7 Billion on research and development, with the total for all US drug and biotech companies coming in at just under $40 billion.
Why is this a bad thing?
1. Direction – Have a solid theory that researching a certain compound can cure cancer in 10 years? Good luck getting funding. Think you can cure acne in 2 years? Heres a million dollars, but make sure they have to take this cure every month to keep it working.
The people who are deciding where to allocate research money are not interested in science, only profits. If you think you can legitimately help man kind, but there is not obvious way to profit from it, then you are shit outta luck (or should I say we all are). There is an excellent discussion on this particular subject that can be found here.
2. Ethics – The scientific community is very proud of its morals. We do our work to help mankind and to further progress our knowledge of various subjects. The same cannot be said to the profit minded business men who are fitting the bills, and they might not find it so reprehensible to fudge a few numbers in a study if it can mean big money for the shareholders.
A study was done by Richard Davidson at the University of Florida where he looked at the results of clinical trials comparing new therapies with old ones, and compared the rates of success of research funded by pharmaceutical companies with the ones that weren’t. What he found is There was a statistically significant association between the source of funding and the outcome of the study (p=0.002).
What can we do to fix this?
The answer is entrepreneurship by scientists. When you, the science minded researcher, believe you have a breakthrough on your hands you need to build a company around it. I know it is much safer and easier to patent your findings and then sell to a company, but in doing so you are making sure that control of your research stays out of your hands. If instead of selling your findings you decide to take over the business aspect and market it yourself, you give yourself a chance to become successful. You then are in a position to fund your own research, and maybe even give grants to others. This is not a short-term solution, it will take time, but it is the only way to get progress back in the hands of people who actually care about progress.
As long as research is funded by businessmen progress will be directed by profit instead of knowledge
Please don’t hesitate to disagree!
You know the game. Say something in someones ear and they pass it down the line. By the time it gets to the end the LHC is going to destroy the world.
The way that we obtain our information has changed a great deal since the advent of institutionalized journalism in the media. Gone are the days when news was spread by the witness, replaced by the omniscent entities that are NBC, Fox News, CNN, and the BBC (CSPAN not so much).
This method of dispersing information is not without merit. It allows for the most important news to reach as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. With one source few sources of information, it is easy to keep up to date with the world. All you have to do is turn on your television.
In reality, unfortunately, that is not how it works. Instead of a constant stream of relavent, unbiased information, what we get from these networks is celebrety gossip and tradgedy shoved down our throats. While I could rant about the media all day, I would like to focus specifically on the problems this causes for the dissemination of scientific information.
Non-Scientists are deciding what is important
Here are the top stories on health you can find at CNN.com. If you look you will notice that not one of these stories involves medical breakthroughs, vaccines, artificial hearts, or anything even vaguely scientific. None of the other major news sites are any better. Even if you do manage to find something with any scientific worth on the website, fat chance you’ll hear about it on TV where many people still get all of their news.
Non- Scientists are trying to explain science
Imagine if a quantum physicist walked up to you (assuming you aren’t one) and explained uncertainty as it applies to special reletivity. Now imagine that hours later you have to explain it to someone else who never took an intro physics class in their life. Now that person will go on television and explain it to the world. Think some ideas might come across incorrectly? Well this is the system we now use, and this game of telephone that our information goes through is a major reason that a large percentage of the public does not fully understand concepts like global warming and vaccinations. I heard from a guy who heard from a guy that carbon footprints are getting the ozone layer dirty. This is the kind of thing that we can expect when getting second-hand information, which begs the question…
Why are we still using second hand sources?
Now that we are living in the age of the internet and moving towards a system of open-source information, there is no reason that we can’t get our information from first-hand accounts. An summary from someone who has actually done the research would be infinitely more reliable and accurate than someone else trying to give the same information with a far lesser understanding of the subject. A scientist saying “here’s what I did, and this is what it means” is so much more relavent than someone with a journalism degree saying “someone did this, and it could possibly mean the end of life as we know it.”
Is this our fault? What can we as the scientific community do to circumvent the media?
I say it is our fault, and we need to put down the telephone and start shouting from the rooftops. Yes I realize that doesn’t really mean anything, but I’m passionate about this dammit! Sharing knowledge should be just as much a part of a researchers job as gaining knowledge.
Please share your thoughts
There is a disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the world
Need proof? Look at this picture and tell me what you see. If you are involved in research a common answer could be graduate students running an assay or working on silicon chip production…nothing too exciting. However; if you have never worked in a clean room, or any research lab setting for that matter, this photo can evoke a different reaction. These figures represent faceless, genderless scientists working in a building with no windows that is possibly underground. What are they working on? Zombies most likely. The general rule is blue gloves for zombies, purple for nuclear bombs if I remember correctly.
While this example is exaggerated, it is more slight than you might think. Think back to when you first told your friends and family that you wanted to pursue a career is science, and NOT be a doctor (M.D.). Hard memories to relive I know, but if you’re experience was anything like mine you probably got two specific reactions on more than one occasion.
“So what are you gonna do? Make bombs?”
“Wow, let me know when you cure cancer!”
Besides showing that most people think that the only things being researched are cancer and bombs, these two reactions show two very different but commonly held views on the scientific community. The bomb question underlies the feeling that some people have that researchers are simply trying to push the forefront of progress without any thought to the consequences. This attitude is prevalent since the advent of the atomic bomb, but can be seen in regards to many current projects like stem cell research and the LHC “black hole dilemma”.
The “scientists are people who cure cancer” view is opposite in the love/hate spectrum, but equally as dangerous to the community, if not more so. This implies the view that researchers are these benevolent entities that sit above the masses like guardians just waiting for a problem to arise so they can save them from it. There are several major scientific problems in the world today: New energy sources, providing food and water for an ever expanding population, curing an endless list of diseases, the list goes on and on. If every person in the world were working to solve these problems we still couldn’t be certain that we would solve them, but the reality is that more than 99% of people are just waiting for the answers to come down from above.
Why WE (Read: the scientific community) should care
1. THIS IS OUR FAULT. I cannot stress enough the fact that ignorance/malice of scientific research cannot be blamed on anyone but the people who have the knowledge but do not disseminate it. The underlying problem, as I see it, is the difficulty in finding first-hand reports of research for the average person. Research articles are spread throughout a plethora of journals, each of which charges handsomely to read its articles and most do not make it very easy to find studies which are reputable and applicable. The problem is then furthered by the fact that once you DO find a research paper, it is impossible to follow without years of experience reading, and often writing, articles on a similar subject. Google scholar – great for writing bibliographies, terrible for obtaining knowledge.
2. WE NEED THEIR HELP. I would never downplay the importance of education, experience, and subject-focused genius in scientific discovery, however it is certainly not all that there is. Anybody who has ever set out to do research with a specific goal in mind has to admit one thing: We use a largely luck based, hypothesis driven, guess-and-check methedology. Given that, we can follow an obvious line of logic to the fact that the more people we have working on any given problem, the more likely we are to find the answers in a shorter period of time. There are now almost 7 billion people on this earth, with maybe 10 million involved in any kind research. Talk about only using 10% of your brain.