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!
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.