Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Marc Kirschner Defends Basic Science

Marc Kirschner is Chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He's a very smart man and a well-respected scientist.1 He has an editorial in the June 14th issue of Science: A Perverted View of “Impact” [see also: In search of big breakthroughs: why attempts to predict ‘significant’ research might backfire in The Boston Globe]

Kirschner says that the emphasis on "significance" and "impact" in making funding decisions is "misleading and dangerous." Nobody can really predict how fundamental research will affect the future. He writes ...
One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rearview mirror. To pretend otherwise distorts science. DNA restriction enzymes, once the province of obscure microbiological investigation, ultimately enabled the entire recombinant DNA revolution. Measurement of the ratios of heavy and light isotopes of oxygen, once a limited area of geochemistry, eventually allowed the interpretation of prior climate change. What is now promoted as high-impact science is usually a narrow extension of existing experimental designs in a program focused on a set of feasible goals. Fuzzy new directions that might fail, but could open up major new questions, are often dismissed as too speculative and considered low-impact. And in biomedical science, there is an increasing tendency to equate significance to any form of medical relevance. This causes biochemical investigations and research on nonmammalian systems to be treated as intrinsically less valuable than studies on human cells. As a result, biomedicine is losing the historically productive cross-fertilization between model systems and human biology.
This is a serious problem in Canada as well. The current Conservative government is forcing the granting agencies to focus on funding projects that will aid "innovation" or improve health. In the biomedical field, the buzzword is "translational research," which means research that will have a direct impact on health care. What that means, in practice, is that scientists working on nonmammalian systems are having trouble maintaining their funding.

We all know that modern medicine is based on fundamental discoveries made in 'phage, bacteria, protozoa, yeast, and plants as well as work on animal systems. That kind of basic science used to be funded by the medical science granting agencies in the USA and Canada but that's much less likely in the 21st century. We bemoan the lack of diversity in research but there's a more serious problem as Kirschner points out ...
In science, faster, better, and cheaper are not as important as conceptual, novel, and careful. Focusing resources narrowly on areas that are deemed impactful, while ignoring many others, decreases diversity, making science less productive. Assessments based primarily on impact may also be contributing to an apparent epidemic of irreproducible results in the biomedical literature. Reviewers and editors increasingly insist on major extensions of the submitted work in order to inflate its (narrowly defined) impact, while at the same time making such extensions a condition for acceptance. In today's competitive job and grant market, these demands create a strong inducement for sloppy science.
Current trends are not only hurting scientists who work on basic problems but they are also encouraging sloppy science. That's a point that needs emphasis.

We all like to blame the government for getting us into this situation but scientists, themselves, are partly to blame for not speaking out forcibly against a policy that will never work in the long run. I agree 100% with Marc Kirschner when he writes ...
What ails science today requires an honest diagnosis. Scientists are failing to live up to the trust society has placed in them. The scientific community must create leadership with the courage and independence to take control of the structure of its training, the peer-reviewing of its journals, the organization of grant review panels, and the overall priorities that are set. There are strong political, economic, and institutional interests that are not shy about asserting themselves. Scientists have to be equally assertive and even more persuasive.
(My emphasis.) I'm not sure what he means by "leadership" but I'm sure that he qualifies since he's Chair of a department at a major university. Those are the kind of people who need to speak out but that doesn't let all the rest of us off the hook. We all need to be more "assertive" and more "persuasive."

Here's how to do it ...
I also believe ... that scientists must challenge the assumption that translation, rather than fundamental understanding, is the choke point of progress in the application of science to societal problems. They should work hard to encourage risk and exploration, while at the same time rewarding careful, thoughtful investigation. And they should reemphasize humility, banishing the words "impact" and "significance" and seeing them for what they really are: ways of asserting bias without being forced to defend it.

1. I disagree with him about facilitated variation but that's minor compared to his overall accomplishments.


  1. This is refreshing to see. This piece reflects a constant conversation among my peers as we commiserate over our latest unfunded grant proposals and their short-sighted reviews, and the depressing creep of the buzzwords "impact", "significance" and "translational" into every last corner of the research university/funding agency axis. We also often confess to the dirty feeling we all get when we force contrived pronouncements of the impact, significance and translational aspects of our work in the next revision in the hopes that we will press the right buttons the next time around. It's become pretty depressing, really. We just want to do good science on interesting and unresolved questions.

  2. All true, but I find it bizarre to be lectured about the evils of impact fetishism from the pages of a journal whose editorial policy it is to accept and reject papers not primarily on the criterion of quality but on the criterion whether their topic is charismatic and/or can be expected to be a big thing over the next five years. The author himself might not be a hypocrite, I wouldn't know, but from a journal perspective this looks like one of the two or three biggest offenders in science publishing saying "do as I say, don't do as I do".

  3. Didn't Science magazine give us Elizabeth Pennisi? Didn't they fall for the Encode hype?

  4. For a creationist it reaffirms that creationist research, YEC OR ID, has not a future of remaining obscure but also could become a leading edge in discovery and innovation.
    The money belongs to the people and so a trust is there its being used for scientific progress and not just give "scientists" jobs in pet passions.
    There is much interference in modern North american science and I suspect even these old guard people smell the wrong people are getting the money and for wrong reasons.
    It seems we should be further along relative to the wealth and numbers of people involved in these things.
    We should be shooting ahead of the world but instead somethings gone wrong. I got a hunch.
    By the way origin subjects should be sensitive to giving grants to up and coming researchers with creationist presumptions.
    Where do I apply for the grants???

    1. And while we are at it, why not open up other fields to the untrained masses. I have an uninformed criticism of the current practices of heart and brain "surgeons". Would you let me try my radical new paradigm on you? It's even in the bible!

  5. Creationist researchers and thinkers are not untrained.
    Its not the masses but small circles like everything else in speciality sciences.
    By the way we were here first in modern civilization in conclusions about origins.

    1. Creationist researchers and thinkers are not untrained.

      ...but are normally not actually trained in the discipline they are criticizing. Which leads to the uninformed making uninformed comments (which are eaten up by the creationist masses who fear that we are not special, just another evolutionary path). A computer scientists or a lawyer would never be listened to in advanced chemistry or quantum physics. It is just as stupid to think they have the background to criticize modern evol. biol.

      By the way we were here first in modern civilization in conclusions about origins.

      Not true either. Many non-deity, hunter-gatherer style religions see humans as another form of animal, and often think of them as "cousins". Much more accurate than the account in Genesis.

    2. I said modern civilization. That starting with the protestant reformation.
      Creationists were the first to write and discuss about the origins of biology and geology.
      We were here first. We didn't lgo anywhere. Just announcements of our defeat were made and rebuttals censored.

      Your right that origin issues should have confident researchers as the leaders in the conversations.
      Origin subjects are only done by small numbers of people and NOT the scientific community like creationists are often told.
      Yet creationists are just as informed or better on these issues.

    3. Absolutely wrong. Creationists take great care NOT to be informed, in case they see "something nasty in the woodpile". You yourself, Byers are a case in point; you know nothing - NOTHING - of any of the sciences you presume to criticise

  6. How many new hires has his department, or his entire campus, made of people with risky, often wrong, low-impact publications?
    There's only two problems with 'impact', it dictates funding, and it dictates hiring. Since he's chair of a major department at a major university, he could lead the way on one front.
    Maybe he is, I don't know.