Jan 21st 2015

The “Impact” Illusion in Science

by Henry I. Miller

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the US Food and Drug Administration.

STANFORD – Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Given limited resources, grant-making authorities are always tempted to channel a higher proportion of funds toward the latter. And, faced with today’s tight budget constraints, the inclination to favor projects that have demonstrable short-term returns is arguably stronger now than in the past. But to succumb to it is a mistake. Some of science’s most useful breakthroughs have come as a result of sustained investment in basic research or as by-products of unrelated efforts.

Indeed, evaluating the impact of any research project is difficult. As Marc Kirschner, a professor at Harvard Medical School, pointed out in a thoughtful editorial in the journal Science: “One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rear-view mirror.”

Even preeminent researchers may underestimate the significance of their findings at the time they obtain them. When Salvador Luria, my university microbiology professor, received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he made the point eloquently, sending a humorous cartoon to all who had congratulated him on the award. It depicted an elderly couple at the breakfast table. The husband, reading the morning newspaper, exclaims, “Great Scott! I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize for something I seem to have said, or done, or thought, in 1934!”

Discoveries can come from unforeseen directions, as seemingly unrelated and obscure research areas intersect unexpectedly. In a 2011 editorial, the French biologist François Jacob described the research that led to his 1965 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His lab had been working on the mechanism that under certain circumstances causes the bacterium E. coli suddenly to produce bacterial viruses. At the same time, another research group was analyzing, also in E. coli, how the synthesis of a certain enzyme is induced in the presence of a specific sugar.

As Jacob put it, “The two systems appeared mechanistically miles apart. But their juxtaposition would produce a critical breakthrough for our understanding of life.” Thus was born the concept of an “operon,” a cluster of genes whose expression is regulated by an adjacent regulatory gene.

Another quintessential example of both the synergy and serendipity of basic research is the origin of recombinant DNA technology, the prototypical technique of modern genetic engineering (sometimes called “genetic modification,” or GM). It resulted from a combination of findings in several esoteric, largely unrelated areas of basic research in the early 1970s. Research in enzymology and nucleic acid chemistry led to techniques for cutting and rejoining segments of DNA. Advances in fractionation procedures permitted the rapid detection, identification, and separation of DNA and proteins. And the accumulated knowledge of microbial physiology and genetics allowed foreign DNA to be introduced into a cell and made to function there.

The result was the birth of modern biotechnology. Over the last 40 years, recombinant DNA technology has revolutionized numerous industrial sectors, including agriculture and pharmaceuticals. It has enabled the development of vaccines against infectious diseases and drugs that treat non-infectious illnesses like diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and some genetic disorders.

Another example is the creation of hybridomas, hybrid cells created in the laboratory by fusing normal white blood cells that produce antibodies with a cancer cell. Researchers wanted to combine the cancer cells’ rapid growth and the normal cells’ ability to dictate the production of a single specific “monoclonal” antibody. Their goal was to learn more about the rates of cellular mutation and the generation of antibody diversity.

But, as it turned out, these immortal, antibody-producing cells were useful not only for scientific inquiry, but also as a novel technological instrument for a variety of medical and industrial applications. Indeed, the technology has led to the development of highly specific diagnostic tests; blockbuster anti-cancer drugs such as Rituxan (rituximab), Erbitux (cetuximab), and Herceptin (trastuzumab); and Avastin (bevacizumab), which is widely used to treat both cancer and diseases of the retina that commonly cause blindness.

In his editorial, Kirschner bemoaned the “tendency to equate significance to any form of medical relevance,” noting that it caused research into non-mammalian systems to be treated “as intrinsically less valuable than studies on human cells.” As a result, simple but informative model systems can be overlooked, and an important link between basic science and human medicine can be lost.

The past century of research on various non-mammalian model systems makes this point persuasively. For example, studies of Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny roundworm, have provided a wealth of information on cellular differentiation, neural networks, meiosis, and programmed cell death. Studies of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, have significantly advanced our understanding of the mechanisms underlying Mendelian genetics.

The amount of money funneled by governments into research is large. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health spends roughly $30 billion a year, and the National Science Foundation adds another $7 billion. As officials decide how that money is to be spent, they would be wise to glance in the rear-view mirror and fund the basic research that keeps science moving forward.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."