In July 2005 Science magazine published a list of the top questions in science [Science, July 1, 2005]. I was reminded of this list when I attended a meeting last month because the publishers of Science were handing out a special isue devoted to those questions. There are two categories; the top 25 questions, and 100 other questions. (It was the 125th aniversary of the magazine, hence 125 questions.)
I'd like to spend some time discussing those questions because not only are they interesting from a scientific point of view but they also reveal a great deal about science journalism and the public perception of science.
The issue began with an essay titled "In Praise of Hard Questions." The author, science writer Tom Siegfried, notes that hard questions stimulate science. He says,
The pressures of the great, hard questions bend and even break well-established principles, which is what makes science forever self-renewing—and which is what demolishes the nonsensical notion that science's job will ever be done.Everyone agrees with the sentiment behind this statement. We all know that asking the right questions is the essence of good science. We all know that hard questions challenge prevailing models. On the other hand, we also know that there is such a thing as a stupid question in spite of what your Professors might have told you. Stupid questions can mislead scientists and stiffle creativity.
The opening article quotes David Gross, the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics who says,
One of the most creative qualities a research scientist can have is the ability to ask the right questions.So, what are the "right" questions to ask? In my experience, the "right" questions are not immediately obvious. As stated above, they often challenge the prevailing dogma and this means that in the beginning they are dismissed as silly questions. Over time, the idea that this is a good question becomes more and more acceptable until finally it starts to stimulate active research.
What this means is that at any given point in time the "right" questions are only known to a few scientists on the cutting edge. These are ones who have begun to understand that the old questions aren't working any more. The vast majority of scientists will be sticking with the paradigm that's about to be overthrown. If you were to take a vote they would overwhelmingly dismiss the very questions that need to be asked.
Now, don't get me wrong. This is the way science is supposed to work. We all know that 99.9% of all attacks on orthodoxy deserve to be dismissed. The wonderful thing about science is that the 0.1% of "right" questions will almost certainly bubble to the surface. The real tricky part is picking out that 0.1% in advance.
So, if you were the editors of Science magazine how would you identify the important questions in science without falling into the trap of reinforcing orthodoxy and missing those very questions that a small group of experts are beginning to pay attention to? One way would be to seek out those experts and ask their opinion. This seems to be what is being advocated in the lead article where Tom Siegfried says,
Science's greatest advances occur on the frontiers, at the interface between ignorance and knowledge, where the most profound questions are posed. There's no better way to assess the current condition of science than listing the questions that science cannot answer.But, Science magazine did not ask the experts at the frontiers. The actual procedure is explained in the editorial accompanying the July 1, 2005 issue. According to editors Donald Kennedy and Colin Norman, here's what they did.
We began by asking Science’s Senior Editorial Board, our Board of Reviewing Editors, and our own editors and writers to suggest questions that point to critical knowledge gaps. The ground rules: Scientists should have a good shot at answering the questions over the next 25 years, or they should at least know how to go about answering them. We intended simply to choose 25 of these suggestions and turn them into a survey of the big questions facing science. But when a group of editors and writers sat down to select those big questions, we quickly realized that 25 simply wouldn’t convey the grand sweep of cutting-edge research that lies behind the responses we received. So we have ended up with 125 questions, a fitting number for Science’s 125th anniversary.The "right" questions were selected by editors and science journalists. I'm going to examine some of these questions in the next few days, concentrating exclusively on biology questions. Let's see how well they did when asked to identify the top "hard" questions in science.