Saturday, September 27, 2008

Unrealistic Expectations

 
Harold Varmus was in town recently to receive the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research. He made some interesting comments that were reported in last Thursday's issue of the Globe and Mail [Cancer expert warns of too-great expectations]. Bayman spotted it and reported on Balblab [Varmus on "The Cure" for Cancer].

Here's what Varmus said,
Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, head of New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said one of the inherent difficulties in continuing to raise funds for cancer research is to explain to people how difficult the problems are that still lie ahead.

“These problems are really, really tough, and they're going to be knocked off more or less one by one,” he said in an interview in Toronto, where he received one of Canada's highest-profile medical awards, the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research.

Unrealistic expectations of an imminent cure for cancer have been around since former U.S. president Richard Nixon declared war on the disease in his 1971 State of the Union address, Dr. Varmus said.

They have been fuelled, he said, by a continuous stream of media articles that trumpet some initiative such as the completion of the genome project and then predict a payoff never matched by reality.

And he argued that the culture of unrealistic expectations is encouraged by the way science is taught in schools, with a focus on outcomes rather than process.
This is part of a growing backlash against hype in the media. I think most of us realize that in the past we exploited the naivety of the media in order to advance our pet projects. As we get older we realize that we were wrong to make this pact with the devil and now we want to turn the clock back and emphasize the purity of science and the search for truth.

We want the general public to understand how science is really done and not how we pretended it was done. One of the reasons for this change in attitude is that science has lost credibility for not living up to the hype. Another reason is that we see the problems with a society that doesn't understand how science really works. It makes fighting creationism and other superstitions much harder.

I hate to bring up framing again but I think these two issues are related. For those of us who want to teach the truth about science, framing sounds too much like the old ways that we are trying to put behind us.


[Photo Credit: In addition to being a Nobel Laureate and President & Chief Executive of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Varmus is also Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of PLoS: Public Library of Science.]

14 comments :

  1. I would imagine that if we start saying that research money is intended not for public benefit but for a scientist's curiosity, then that money is going to disappear pretty quickly.
    The aforementioned hype could be better classified as a noble lie.

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  2. We should be aiming at not needing to say noble lies in order to get money for research...

    But that's not going to happen any time soon

    BTW, the search for cures is a larger problem than simply not meeting the unrealistic expectations of the public and scientists lying to get funding. I am left with the impression that too many scientists think primarily "I should be looking for cures" rather than "I should be looking to understand the biology of the processes"

    Which is best exemplified in insane practices such as JBC adding comments like "RELEVANCE TO DIABETES" to papers on its website and others

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  3. I am left with the impression that too many scientists think primarily, "I should be looking for cures" rather than "I should be looking to understand the biology of the processes"

    At least in the United States, you have this exactly backwards. If everyone were really thinking to look for cure first (which they aren't), or even to look for anything with any practical utility at all first (which they also aren't), the NIH wouldn't have to keep hammering away at needing more "translational research". Unfortunately for the NIH, the NIH grants are essentially funded by study sections made up of proudly "basic scientists" who couldn't care less about what the NIH says it wants. In my humble opinion, the public has every right to be outraged over research money, allegedly being spent to benefit the health of the public, that is instead spent to benefit the satisfaction of scientists' curiosity.

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  4. That NIH keeps hammering the need for more translational research does not mean that translational research is not what dominates.

    The public has no right to be outraged over anything because it does not understand the science, neither it can understand that some (if not most) of the biggest advances ever have been made in the so called "basic research" that money are being spent on in order "to benefit the satisfaction of scientists' curiosity"...

    I would be a lot more outraged over the money being spent on genome-wide association studies for this and that disease, for example...

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  5. The public has no right to be outraged over anything because it does not understand the science...

    Really? Does this mean you cannot explain your science in terms the public will understand, or just that you'd prefer not to? In any event, I *do* understand the science, and I'm still outraged over the flimsiest of justifications used for scooping huge dollars from the NIH for what are really truly basic science studies that don't even pretend to have anything whatever to do with Health. If you want to use public money to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, why don't you apply to the NSF instead? That's what they do.

    ...neither it can understand that some (if not most) of the biggest advances ever have been made in the so called "basic research" that money are being spent on in order "to benefit the satisfaction of scientists' curiosity

    This is the standard argument by which basic scientists try to defend a lifetime of studying trivial irrelevancies. You could equally well justify investing the public's money to buy lottery tickets, because you never know which ticket is going to give the big payoff.

    If you can't adequately justify your science to the public, the public should not fund your research.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Since you understand the science, you probably also know the difference between the budget of NSF and NIH and the fact that the former covers all sciences.

    And, again, since you understand the science, you probably understand that RNAi came from studies in plants and worms, the molecular basics of apoptosis were worked out in worms, and so on and so, all of these were truly basic studies with no apparent relevance to health.

    There is so much wrong with your position that I don't have the time and space to cover it here.

    If the public is ignorant and unable to understand the importance of some scientific work, this does not mean that this work should not be done. I will just give the best example these days - the LHC. Instead of focusing on the scientific importance of the experiments, news coverage focused on the "danger" and the cost - I can't count how many times the question "Why did we spent so much on trying to understand the universe" was asked. Nobody asked the question "Why was the SSC canceled?". And nobody asks the why the public is not happy with spending 6 billions on a particle accelerator over more than a decade, but does not pay much attention to military expenses or the hundreds of billions spent each year on cosmetics, entertainment, food for pets and other vitally important for the human species activites

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  8. There is so much wrong with your position that I don't have the time and space to cover it here.

    You better have the time and space to cover it in the introduction to your NIH grant application then, because otherwise I will triage your grant with comments along the lines of, "this application would be better served by a funding institution like the NSF."

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  9. Anonymous says,

    You better have the time and space to cover it in the introduction to your NIH grant application then, because otherwise I will triage your grant with comments along the lines of, "this application would be better served by a funding institution like the NSF."

    Wow! I understand why you don't tell us your name. You would be crucified by most scientists for an attitude like that.

    Most basic scientists know full well that the NIH is the only source of money for them to do the kind of expensive research required in the 21st century. Everyone has figured out how to play the game by pretending that all research has to have something to do with health.

    If you don't want to continue the game then the best way to do it is to convince politicians and the general public that basic curiosity motivated science must be well funded. In other words, stop pretending that all NIH research is health oriented.

    Following your path is the exact opposite of what a modern industrialized nation should be doing. Your way would lead to the disappearance of high quality basic life sciences in the USA. Is that really what you are trying to do by "triaging" that kind of research? Shame on you.

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  10. BTW, if public money should not be used to fund basic research, then who is going to fund it?

    Because private funding is also skewed towards clinical studies...

    There was an editorial in Nature Neuroscience last week on that:

    http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v11/n10/full/nn1008-1117.html

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  11. Everyone has figured out how to play the game by pretending that all research has to have something to do with health.

    Not playing this "game" is exactly what Varmus is talking about. Deceiving the public is not the way to get the public to either trust or support science.

    As an aside, it's strange that biomedical researchers are the only ones who don't seem to understand this. You don't hear the physicists at the LHC telling the public that crashing relativisitic photons together is going to lead to better toaster ovens, or 1000 mpg cars, or anything other than greater understanding of the physical universe.

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  12. You don't hear the physicists at the LHC telling the public that crashing relativisitic photons together is going to lead to better toaster ovens, or 1000 mpg cars, or anything other than greater understanding of the physical universe.

    You are making a very fallacious statement here.

    LHC is in Europe and we are not talking about Europe here

    The analogous project in US (the SSC) was canceled 15 years ago. Guess why...

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  13. Anonymous says,

    Not playing this "game" is exactly what Varmus is talking about. Deceiving the public is not the way to get the public to either trust or support science.

    Exactly right. I agree 100%.

    I think that major funding agencies like NIH should be openly handing out research grants to projects that have nothing to do with health. The members of the panels need to stop pretending that NIH grants are only for health related projects and they have to communicate this message to the general public.

    Do you agree?

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  14. I wonder if anonymous was one of the hordes who called for cancelling the Apollo missions in order to spend that money "solving problems down on the ground". Fat lot of good that did; and yet, their children are here now, saying the same sort of crap.

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