Sunday, December 28, 2014

How do we teach our students that basic research is important?

There's a fabulous editorial in the Toronto Star today. It's critical of the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party of Canada for the damage they are doing to science in Canada [Canada needs a brighter federal science policy: Editorial].

Here's some excerpts ...
Finding a fan of Canada’s current science policy among those who care about such things would be a discovery worthy of Banting and Best. Few if any would contend that Ottawa’s approach is sound; rather, the debate in 2014 has been over what in the world would possess a government to pursue such a catastrophic course.

According to one school of thought, the answer is simple: the Conservatives are cavemen set on dragging Canada into a dark age in which ideology reigns unencumbered by evidence. Let’s call this the Caveman Theory.

The other, more moderate view holds that Prime Minister Stephen Harper et al are not anti-science – that they at least understand the importance of research and development to their "jobs and growth" agenda – but are instead merely confused about how the enterprise works and about the role government must play to help it flourish. Let’s call this the Incompetence Theory.
The rest of the editorial describes how Stephen Harper and his Conservative buddies have directed funding agencies to concentrate on research that will be of direct benefit to Canadian for-profit companies.

It concludes with ...
Whatever the government’s motives, whatever it understands or does not about how science works, it has over the last eight years devastated Canadian research in a way that will be hard to reverse. Private sector R&D continues to lag, but in our efforts to solve that problem we have seriously reduced our capacity for primary research, squandering a long-held Canadian advantage. Meanwhile, we have earned an international reputation for muzzling scientists, for defunding research that is politically inconvenient and for perversely conflating scientific goals with business ones, thus dooming both. Our current funding system is less well placed than it was in 2006 to promote innovation and our science culture has been so eroded that we are unlikely to attract the top talent we need to compete in the knowledge economy.

Whether it was anti-intellectualism, incompetence or both that led us to this dark place, let this coming election year bring the beginning of a climb back into the light.
How can the government of Canada be so ignorant? It's because they have a huge amount of support from the general public who see all research as technology. They are only willing to support research that helps the economy.

Most people are not interested in research that simply advances our knowledge of the natural world.

What are we doing as educators to reverse this trend? Not very much, as it turns out. Many of our courses in biochemistry focus on how biochemistry can benefit medicine as though this was the only reason for learning about biochemistry.1 Our department is discussing whether we should have undergraduate courses on drug discovery and how drugs are brought to market. We are considering a co-op program where students will spend some time working in the private sector. We are toying with the idea of creating an entirely new program that will train students to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

It's no wonder that the general public thinks of science as the servant of industry. We are not doing a very good job of teaching undergraduates about the importance of knowledge and the value of scientific thinking. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are supporting the Stephen Harper agenda.

Don't be surprised if it comes back to bite you in the future.


1. We teach medical case studies in our introductory biochemistry course for science undergraduates!

35 comments :

  1. What else could one expect from a government that appointed a chiropractor and YEC as it's Minister of State for Science and Technology? Fortunately, Goodyear is no longer in that position but the damage was done. In the US, this would be equivalent to a president appointing James Inhofe as his science adviser.

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  2. How can "we as educators" compete with media awash with Big Pharma advertisements proclaiming its profound devotion to finding the cures everyone longs for? Until someone with a Bill-Gates-sized-wallet comes aboard to help us, both the continued dominance of Big Pharma, and snail-like progress towards those cures, are assured.

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    1. But this is Canada, having the ultimate in publicly funded healthcare.I'm at a loss as to what to wish for. Crony capitalism and medicine developed for profit, or single payer and limited to the most cost effective solutions.

      Basic research is possibly the ultimate rejection of cost effectiveness. To justify it to taxpayers, you need to think about how it affects society (and, yes, technology) over long periods of time, say fifty or a hundred years.

      Somewhere in the middle is basic research into questions that have obvious applications, but which have a low probability of leading directly to profit.

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  3. How exactly the advances of knowledge of the natural world would benefit the society in general...? Let's use population genetics and the mechanisms of evolution research as two examples…

    For the same reason we study human history - knowing who you are, how you came to be, how the world came to its current state, and what is likely to happen is kind of important.

    Because if you don't have a good understanding of those things, you risk creating a future you might not like.

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    1. Really...? What if the ASSUMPTIONS are not true...? What kind of future can be build on an assumption that is a lie...???

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    2. Oh, the irony....

      That's a really good question you should ask yourself really hard.



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    3. It's quite certain that I have done a lot more thinking on the topic than you have.

      I also have the advantage of having based it on something as close to the truth as possible.

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    4. Georgia wrote:

      "It's quite certain that I have done a lot more thinking on the topic than you have."

      Prove it!!!

      "I also have the advantage of having based it on something as close to the truth as possible."

      What does 99% truth + 1% lie equal...?

      In other words what does 99% water + 1% poison equal...? Will you drink it because it is mostly water...?

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    5. What I really meant to ask you is to prove it to me that the cell is NOT irreducibly complex...

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    6. ...but I guess you are still looking for proof of how arrogant you are...???

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    7. @Quest

      Lots of things are irreducibly complex. The citric acid cycle is irreducibly complex and so is RNA polymerase. Why is that a problem?

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    8. Professor Moran,

      In your view... to the best of your knowledge today... can you honestly say that the cell at least appears to be irreducibly complex....?

      You don't have to answer this question... but I think we both know what the answer is...

      ...and it is not a problem... not at all..

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    9. ...and the arrogant Georgia Malinov disappeared... he seem to have been so close to the truth... so close but arrogant.... especially the scientific arrogance seems to have gotten in a way of logic...

      ...too bad for Georgia Malinov how he tried to outwit a little guy with no knowledge and no education... Sorry... but I couldn't help it...

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    10. Give me one reason why I should waste my time arguing with you?

      I already spent way more time than I should have replying to your posts.

      I've been doing this (arguing with creationists) for 10 years now, which is much longer than the time one needs to realize the futility of the exercise and adopts a policy of saving his time and effort for more worthy endeavors.

      It only makes sense to argue with someone who has to capacity and the willingness to listen. You have given no signs that you meet these criteria

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    11. …I agree with Georgi…I don’t comment much on this blog, but I have to say that Quest has never added anything substantial to a conversation…I’ve learned far more from responses to his comments than from than anything he posts…he had many chances to learn something new… so close to actually learning something…so close but arrogant...ellipse ellipse ellipse…something about logic…sorry…this is a little incoherent…I hope more people on this blog stop wasting their time on Quest and continue with more interesting comments (there have been many great ones!)…I will take my own advice…this will be my first and only response to Quest…I’m quite bored of him honestly…at least he keeps this blog well stocked with ellipses… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …

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    12. Personally I wonder why you are still answering to Quest's trolling.

      If you think that he is saying something which should be explained to other readers - simply explain it. Just don't discuss with him. He is not worth it.

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  4. "Most people are not interested in research that simply advances our knowledge of the natural world."

    How exactly the advances of knowledge of the natural world would benefit the society in general...? Let's use population genetics and the mechanisms of evolution research as two examples…

    How the general public would benefit if one day some kind of progress was made ...and at least few scientists would agree upon it ... not to mention if some supporting, experimental evidence would finally appear…?

    Otherwise… why pay for something... if speculation is free…?

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    1. Quest and your puppets, here's your fair well/ farewell ticket:

      " population genetics" - forensic DNA typing . Or you must faithfully believe your divine spirit alters VNTR patterns.

      Good bye!

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  5. Yet again, Quest simultaneously fails the Turing test while vindicating Poe's Law!

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    1. How about you...? Would you like to be tested...? I have some fundamentals to ask you that your faith is based on... would you like to prove me wrong...?

      I will ask you 10 questions... if you provide evidence for 1 of the science you so believe in I will leave the blog and never come back...

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    2. I have some fundamentals to ask you that your faith is based on [sic]

      if you provide evidence for 1 of the science you so believe in I will leave the blog and never come back [sic]

      For starters, could you perhaps promise to stay away until you learn how to compose a sentence without any syntactical errors? I honestly have no idea what you are on about.

      Out of curiosity, who would be the arbitrator of this little challenge of yours (I am guessing that is what just happened here)? Some objective third party acceptable to both of us, I presume?

      Would that promised "departure" include every incarnation of all your sock-puppets, perchance?

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    3. Faith - noun.
      1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
      2. Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.


      Regarding evolution, I cannot be accused of having faith. And I doubt the others can either.

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  6. Many of our courses in biochemistry focus on how biochemistry can benefit medicine as though this was the only reason for learning about biochemistry.

    I wonder if this relates to the same theme you were pursuing earlier, on course evaluations, where you concluded these were actually nothing more than market research. Has the University determined that the primary reason students take undergrad biochemistry courses is in hopes of landing a spot in medical school, and decided to pander to this?

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    1. It's not my "university" that makes this decision. It's my colleagues. They are the ones who decided it's better to pander to students' interests than to teach critical thinking and science as a way of knowing. The irony is that they are often the same colleagues who complain about our Prime Minister and how he has ruined basic research.

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    2. better to pander to students' interests than to teach critical thinking and science as a way of knowing

      My very strong suspicion is that somewhere in the world are teachers who can both engage their students' interests and teach critical thinking. It seems to me it would be a good thing to try to find out who they are and how they are accomplishing this.

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    3. @judmarc

      There's a big difference between "engaging students' interests" and letting them choose the subjects that interest them. In many cases, our goal as teachers is to get students interested in things they've never been interested in before.

      Often, the best way to encourage critical thinking is to get students to question their own beliefs and biases. In this case, I used to ask students why they are only interested in human centered biochemistry when it's so much more fun to learn about how pathways evolved and how other organisms cope.

      Then I try and show them why understanding photosynthesis leads to a better grasp of the fundamental concepts of bioenergetics and the origin of life.

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    4. @ Larry



      Not too long ago, I was taken to task by an unenlightened administrator who wanted me to follow the lead of other white-haired teachers in other high schools.

      Essentially, I was supposed to change my syllabus and teach a human-biology course. If other schools can teach "life's diversity" in two weeks, why couldn't I?

      I was specifically faulted for my over-emphasis on photosynthesis among other unnecessary embellishments.

      Parenthetically , Canada is the only OECD country where education's not a federal mandate; not that it matters, the problem described here seems ubiquitous.

      I get the distinct impression that textbooks pander to curricula and curricula are designed by éminences grises who really aren't current.

      The problem then becomes one of circularity: teachers (and many professors it would seem) then end up teaching Biology the way they themselves were taught and how everybody else is doing it.

      I get the distinct impression this "circularity" also occurs in many universities, ergo this thread.

      The question then becomes: how to break this vicious cycle?

      For example, in my province, the high school issues I just described overflow into university campuses. Students accustomed to 90% averages drop to the 50% range and lower. Professors are then subjected to inordinate pressure to "adapt" their expectations as outraged parents with political influence scream outrage that their offspring have just lost scholarships and opportunity to continue in Med School.

      I humbly suggest the problem Larry describes is "systemic" and requires a "fix" at the grass roots level, i.e high school.

      My Canadian 5 cents, for what it's worth.

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    5. Tom Mueller says,

      I humbly suggest the problem Larry describes is "systemic" and requires a "fix" at the grass roots level, i.e high school.

      I agree. I urge high school teachers to change the way they teach science.

      Meanwhile, I'll concentrate on university education where change is also desperately needed.

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    6. LM I urge high school teachers to change the way they teach science.

      Meanwhile, I'll concentrate on university education where change is also desperately needed.


      uhmmm... therein lies the problem. alas!

      Change is not forthcoming because those in charge see no need for change. The decision-makers would have the rest of us continue to teach Biology the same they were taught decades ago.

      S O S

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  7. Larry wrote: "It's not my 'university' that makes this decision."

    My university administration encourages these kinds of decisions by using program enrollment, student/faculty ratios and other similar metrics to allocate budget funds. This in combination with administrators who treat students as consumers, and pander to their interests, becomes a deadly incentive for academic programs. We are not told that our programs must become more aligned with the demands of the job markets, but the programs that do are rewarded and those that don't are cut.

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  8. Most humans (certainly from infants to undergraduates) are solipsistic - "the proper study of mankind is man" is their motto. Perspective requires growth and experience. The process is imperfect and it takes a lifetime.

    Secondly, physicians are often mis-marketed as "scientists" despite lots of evidence to the contrary - one only has to look at all the M.D.-authored "proof of heaven" and "disproof of evolution" books. Students with an interest in science get sold on medicine as its highest application, since it's directed at relieving human suffering. (Never mind that sanitary engineers have saved more lives than all the physicians since Hippocrates combined).

    Finally, the days of independently wealthy, self-supporting scientists are over. If we expect someone else to pay the bills, we have to speak initially to something they care about, with the hope that they can develop further. This is not something I get too worried about - I'm far more concerned that people refuse to see science where its results affect them directly (e.g., climate change, pollution, smoking and quackery).

    A recommended strategy: give them a show and teach them real science when they're not looking.

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  9. What is your answer Larry. I agree with you that we should explain how science is important on its own, but how would you do it. Not enough to complain that we don't. A proposal about how would be quite helpful. How would you? How do you?

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    1. I teach a course on molecular evolution. We cover all kinds of interesting stuff that has nothing to do with medicine or technology. I try to get students interested in things like Lenski's long-term evolution experiment and the significance of sex. We discuss whether most of big genomes is junk and whether they've been told the truth about the Three Domain Hypothesis. We cover the debate between Gould and Dawkins. We ask whether evo-devo is important and whether epigenetics is hype or real science.

      The idea is to get students interested in the controversial ideas in science and the ways in which they are going to be solved.

      Usually it works.

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