Science is always working a tough room. It’s inherently progressive — we’re constantly achieving incremental improvements in our understanding, with occasional lurches forward…and sometimes sudden lurches backward, when we realize that we got something wrong. We’re performing for a crowd, the general citizenry and most importantly, the funding agencies, that expect us to fix problems and make the world better, and they’re a fickle bunch who will turn on us with disdain if we don’t keep delivering new medical therapies and tinier electronics and more spectacular robots landing on alien worlds.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of sources of tension in our act.

One problem is that we aren’t doing what everyone thinks we’re doing. The world outside the sciences thinks we’re all about making material improvements in your standard of living, or increasing our competitiveness with other countries. Wrong. We do what we do to increase our understanding. There is an applied side to science that is asking about, for instance, better treatments for cancer, but it’s built on a foundation of scientists just asking, “how do cells work?”

An analogy: imagine building race cars. Everyone watching is thinking that it’s all about winning races (that’s also the case for the backers who are paying for all the machines). But the scientists are the ones who are just thinking about what’s going on inside the engine, tracing the flow of fuel and energy, optimizing and adjusting to make it work. Put a scientist in the driver’s seat, and she wouldn’t be thinking about winning the race; if she heard a mysterious “ping!” at some point, her instinct would be to just pull over then and there and take things apart until she’d figured out what caused it. And figuring out the ping would be more satisfying than finishing the race.

So everyone criticizes the scientist for not winning any races, but the scientist is feeling triumphant because her performance wasn’t what you thought it was — she learned a little bit more about what makes the engine tick, and you should be happy about that!

So that’s one source of tension. Here’s another: funding and public support thrives on positive results, that constant reassurance that yes, we’re proceeding apace towards the finish line, but science itself thrives on criticism. Probing and patching and making fruitful errors and getting criticism that forces us to reconsider our premises and rebuild our hypotheses…that’s the progressive force behind science. And we should be appreciative when someone tells us that a major chunk of research is invalid (and as scientists, we are), but at the same time, we’re thinking that if we have to retool our labs, retrain our students, rethink everything from the ground up, as exciting as it is in a scientific sense, it’s going to be a really hard sell to NSF or NIH. The granting agencies, and the media, love the safe, reliable churn of data that looks like progress from the outside.

Which brings me to an interesting argument. On one side, John Horgan gets all cynical and critical of science, pointing out deep and fundamental flaws in peer review, the overloading of science journals with poor quality work, the lack of progress in many of our goals for science, and bemoaning the reassuring positivity of the media towards science.

…I’m struck once again by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.

And he’s right! We don’t have any cures for cancer or schizophrenia, and as he also points out, the scientific literature is littered with trash papers that can’t be replicated.

But on the other side, Gary Marcus says wait a minute, we really have learned a lot.

Yet some depressed patients really do respond to S.S.R.I.s. And some forms of cancer, especially when discovered early, can be cured, or even prevented altogether with vaccination. Over the course of Horgan’s career, H.I.V. has gone from being universally fatal to routinely treatable (in nations that can afford adequate drugs), while molecular biologists working in the nineteen eighties, when Horgan began writing, would be astounded both by the tools that have recently been developed, like whole-genome-sequencing, and the detail with which many molecular mechanisms are now understood: reading a biology textbook from 1983 is like reading a modern history text written before the Second World War. Then there is the tentative confirmation of the Higgs boson; the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA; the discovery of FOXP2, which is the first gene decisively tied to human language; the invention of optogenetics; and definitive proof that exoplanets exist. All of these are certifiable breakthroughs.

And he’s right!

See what I mean? It’s conflict and tension all the way through. The thing is that the two are looking at it from different perspectives. Horgan is asking, “how many races have we won?” and finds the results dispiriting. Marcus is asking “have we figured out how the engine works?” and is pleased to see that there is an amazing amount of solid information available.

Here, for example, are some data on cancer mortality over time. In this instance, we are actually looking at the science as a race: the faster that we can get all those lines down to zero, the happier we’ll all be.

Charts of cancer death rates over time

Weinberg, The Biology of Cancer

Look at the top graph first. That’s where we’re doing well: the data from stomach and colon and uterine cancer show that those diseases are killing a smaller percentage of people every year (although you can probably see that the curves are beginning to flatten out now). Science did that! Of course, it’s not just the kind of science that finds a drug that kills cancer; much of the decline in mortality precedes the era of chemotherapy and molecular biology, and can be credited to better sanitation and food handling (hooray for the FDA!), better diagnostic tools, and changes in diet and behavior. We’re winning the war on cancer!

Wait, hold on a sec, look at the bottom graph. It’s more complicated than that. Look at lung cancer; science was helpless against the malignant PR campaigns of the tobacco companies. Some cancers seem relentless and unchangeable, like pancreatic and ovarian cancer, and show only the faintest hint of improvement. Others, like breast cancer, held steady in their rate for a long time and are just now, in the last few decades, showing signs of improvement. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Horgan is right to point to the War on Cancer and say that the complex reality is masked by a lot of rah-rah hype.

But at the same time…Horgan got his journalism degree in 1983, and I got my Ph.D. in 1985. He’s on the outside looking in and seeing one thing; over that same time period, I’ve been on the inside (still mostly looking in), and I’ve seen something completely different.

If I could show my 1985 self what 2013 science publishes as routine, 1985 self would be gibbering in disbelief. Transgenic mice? Shuffling genes from one species to another? Whole genome sequencing? Online databases where, with a few strokes of the keyboard, I can do comparisons of genes in a hundred species? QTLs that allow us to map the distribution of specific alleles in whole populations? My career spans an era when it took a major effort by a whole lab group to sequence a single gene, to a period when a grad student could get a Ph.D. for completing the sequencing of a single gene, to now, when we put the DNA in a machine and push a button.

You can look at those charts above and wonder where the cure for cancer is, or you can look at all the detailed maps of signaling pathways that allows scientists to say we understand pretty well how cancer works. Do you realize that hedgehog was only discovered in 1980, and the activated human ras oncogene was only identified in 1982? It’s rather mindblowing to recognize that genes that we now know are central to the mechanisms of cancer have only emerged in the same short period that Horgan finds disappointing in the progression of science.

Everyone on the outside is missing the real performance!

Unfortunately, a growing problem is that some of the people on the inside are also increasingly focused on the end result, rather than the process, and are skewing science in unfortunate directions. There’s grant money and tenured positions on the line for getting that clear positive result published in Cell! As Horgan points out, “media hype can usually be traced back to the researchers themselves”. We’ve seen that with dismaying frequency; recently I wrote about how the ENCODE project seems to have fostered a generation of technicians posing as scientists who don’t understand the background of biology (and Larry Moran finds another case published in Science this week!). We’re at a period in the culture of science when we desperately need more criticism and less optimism, because that’s how good science thrives.

That’s going to be tricky to deliver, though, because the kind of criticism we need isn’t about whether we’re winning the race or not, or translating knowledge into material benefits or not, but whether the process of science is being led astray, and how that’s happening: by the distorting influence of big biomedical money, by deficiencies in training scientists in big picture science, or by burdensome biases of science publication, or by all of the above and many more.

But ultimately we need the right metrics and to have well-defined outcomes that we’re measuring. It doesn’t help if the NIH measure success by whether we’ve cured cancer or not, while scientists are happily laboring to understand how cell states are maintained and regulated in multicellular eukaryotic organisms. Those are different questions.


  1. raven says

    This is just the old, Where’s my flying car, dammit!!! Schtick.

    Sorry, you didn’t get a flying car.

    You got the internet and longer lives instead.

  2. MarkM1427 says

    Too many people see science as the R&D department of society. WRONG

    Science is what the real R&D departments out there depend on to get anything done. You want a flying car? Make sure science is adequately funded, stay the fuck out of its way, and then start asking engineers about it.

  3. ChasCPeterson says

    Great post. (you should take a brief break more often?)

    Now, you say:

    Wrong. We do what we do to increase our understanding.

    And then, according to one Chas. Darwin,

    doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.

    And I’ve always believed this, being way, way more interested in the intricacies of the engine-workings than in any race.
    But the System is set up for the racers. And not just the Big Science NIH cancer-curing and NASA-to-the moon-Alice and climate-change and technology etc. systems, either, but nowadays the freaking rock-bottom small-time student-intensive no-immediate-or-even-plausible-application science systems too.
    If you’ll excuse the anecdote, I myself have lost two faculty jobs, despite very-good-to-excellent teaching, research, mentoring, and service records, for the sole and explicit reason of insufficient grant funding. And these were not first-tier research universities by any means.
    Thing is, I neither needed nor wanted nor, frankly, could ethically justify public funding for my admittedly esoteric and application-free interests in turtle physiology. I was just trying to do the Darwin thing, increasing the general stock of knowledge, pursuing my own rather odd but nevertheless intense interests, and I always saw dedicated teaching as a reasonable price to pay for that privilege. But it ain’t, not any more. Small-time (by choice!) scientists like me are now put in the position of having to come up with research programs that cost a lot of money so they can then write grant proposals for the money to do the research that they’re only proposing because they are expected to get money.

    In other words, many many scientists are no longer able to do what they do “to increase our understanding”, but rather have to do what they do to pull in overhead $$.

    It’s mighty fucked up, imo.

    [to finish the anecdote, if anyone’s interested, after 4 assistant professorships and zero tenure, but lots of fascinating (to me) science, I finally gave up and am now unemployed while seekoing applied conservation-biology or community-college teaching work in the part of the world in which I want to live.]

  4. garnetstar says

    The rates of “event-free” survival of some forms of childhood leukemia have gone from 9% in 1962 to 96% in 2005.

    I hope that Horgan doesn’t demand 100% survival before he’ll call that a win or a breakthrough.

  5. Harry Tuttle says

    Put a scientist in the driver’s seat, and she wouldn’t be thinking about winning the race

    To be fair, Mike Gascoyne, a fluid dynamicist, has managed to finish some races (in F1 cars he designed no less). Billy Arnold had a doctorate in mechanical engineering, but he got it after winning the Indy 500 in 1930.

  6. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Chas: I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ve Kind of Looked into your publication record. In my non-expert opinion, you’ve been very productive…as productive as any of my colleagues (not an R1 either, as you likely know). Your anecdote poignantly illustrates what we are doing wrong. Scientists can often complete remarkable studies on the cheap. We are penalized for that shit by the fucking capital-A Academy.
    I’ll confess. I sold out. In the tenure process I abandoned some very simple (but really cool) lines of investigation to follow big money because I didn’t want to get canned, and big $$ = tenure. As a result, the bulk of my research effort in a three year period was devoted to grant writing rather than actually discovering shit about how the world works. On top of that, I took a job that I liked and turned it into one that I like a lot less.
    Anyway, I’m disheartened to hear how the system has treated you. I hope you get the kind of work you are looking for, and soon.

  7. Holms says

    I think a major component of the disaffection and where are all the promised breakthroughs mentality is that scientific projects are being overly hyped. Gone (or at least declining) are the days of cautious statements of potential results, now we have glitzy production valued more highly than sober documentary (see: the History Channel), promises of grand results, credulous misreporting and science-by-press-release.

    In short, this is heavily contributed to by know-nothing science ‘journalists’ and over-enthusiastic science advocacy.

  8. says

    I find I’m constantly aware of living “in the future”, as I call it; a thumb drive smaller than the last joint of my pinky finger can hold more data than every computer I owned before this one put together. A music player that is smaller than a Bic lighter, and carries all the music I’ve ever owned. An e-reader that could probably hold the text of every book I’ve ever read. Meds that allow me a semblance of quality of life that would have been impossible if I’d been born fifty years earlier. Social contact with people anywhere on the planet, instantly and for no more cost than my phone service. A map that shows the world as we see it, rather than as lines on paper. Phones that can sit in one’s pocket or purse, while a tiny headset allows you to talk with near-perfect clarity to anyone almost anywhere. Any-language resources, like translation and dictionaries and pronunciation media and kanji recognizers. Netflix. Debit cards. Home theatre. CGI. MMOGs. Youtube. Wikipedia. Antibiotics. Voice-command.

    All of that is, in various ways, the by-products of science. People do science, and it throws off these sparks, and the sparks become better lives for human beings. As much as there are some really crappy things about life now, there are also a bunch of things that simply could never have happened before in the ways they do now, whole new ways of living and being human, and science gave them to us.

    I can’t ever get how someone can’t see how far we’ve come in such an intensely short time, technologically, culturally, intellectually, and how valuable letting people do the research they’re interested in can be. Even if 99 scientists only ever add to our store of knowledge, we can’t know now which is the 100th scientist whose work will inspire something wonderful. Logically, we should be funding it strongly, supporting it as a major goal of our culture and society, and enjoying the fruits of that 1% payoff.

  9. marcoli says

    Man, this pushes a button for me.
    I want to share an early post from PZ about this subject, where he showed data on the trends of long term survival in children with leukemia. Science did this wonderful thing:
    <a href=X>Support Cancer Research.
    I still use this very same graph in my Intro biology class while I show the freshmen some of the benefits of science and the ‘scientific method’. I still have to work to not to get choked up at that point.
    But it ‘takes a village’. For the medical researchers to achieve these trends, they first needed a full university of professors and teaching assistants and staff to teach them about basic science, advanced science, writing, ethics, history, business, math, and so on. And those people who do that important training also needed universities to have trained them. For larger universities to function, they need to retain professors that can pull in grants to support their research. $ from those grants also contributes to the overhead costs of running the university. We need public universities with government subsidized support, we need granting agencies, and we need basic research to train and tool up people for applied research. Without basic research, the whole process would grind to a halt, and no one doing medical research or any form of applied research would dispute that. What we do not need are pin-headed legislatures who want grant proposals to be ranked for their value in providing American Security, or whatever.

  10. says

    #6, Antiochus Epiphanes:

    Yeah, there’s always the compromise. Mine was to focus much more on teaching than research — partly because it was marketable, but also because it made me happier than writing grants. I’d seen too many colleagues get sucked into the vortex of grant writing and reviewing and study sections and site visits, when what they wanted to do was work at the bench…but the way science is funded meant that the people who had a good track record of bench work were sidelined into writing grants all the time in order to pay other people, postdocs and grad students and technicians, to do what they were good at.

    If you personally want to do research, it’s a mistake to get a professorship. You’ll do much more of it hopping from post-doc to post-doc, until some bigwig at NIH/NSF decides you have to grow up.

  11. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I’m so sorry. That’s a very raw deal. I would much rather colleges and universities hire an ethical teacher than a wastrel researcher.

    Here’s hoping for something better for you.

  12. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    If you personally want to do research, it’s a mistake to get a professorship. You’ll do much more of it hopping from post-doc to post-doc, until some bigwig at NIH/NSF decides you have to grow up.


  13. left0ver1under says

    The ignorant like Horgan don’t and won’t ever get it.

    “Practical” inventions and discoveries rarely appear by themselves. No one ever said, “Let’s invent a self-powered vehicle!” The parts that make it up were invented or discovered separately, and put together much later (i.e. water pumps in mines, steam piston trains, ICU cars).

    Progress, discovery and invention are like pieces of lego in a box. The parts get made, and then someone comes along with an idea of how to put them together – or someone else comes along with an even better idea.

    If you want the big discoveries, you have to have the small discoveries first. One can’t just demand results and expect something to magically appear. Then again, those like him do believe that things magically appear, hence their religious beliefs….

  14. Andy Groves says

    If you personally want to do research, it’s a mistake to get a professorship. You’ll do much more of it hopping from post-doc to post-doc, until some bigwig at NIH/NSF decides you have to grow up.

    The current structure of research in the US makes it very hard for people to work as (semi)permanent scientists without managerial responsibility. In Europe there is more opportunity for highly skilled researchers to have stable employment at universities and research institutes. In the US, such people would have to be paid from grants that typically last 5 years. The basic unit of currency – the NIH RO1 grant – has stayed flat at $250,000/year for the last 14 years, and while it is possible to request more money from the NIH, this is becoming harder to justify. Think about how much less this money buys in 2013 in real terms. This means that there is pressure to hire people on the cheap – graduate students or freshly minted postdocs – rather than burn research dollars on higher salaries for older staff.

    The root of the problem is that the US population want all the benefits that basic and applied science can provide, but they don’t want to pay for it. And since we’re currently living in a climate where Congress seems to think it’s OK to cut the food stamps of 40-50 million Americans, I don’t see much changing anytime soon.

  15. dianne says

    As far as I know, we have no real idea what’s making stomach cancer kill fewer people. Less H pylori might have something to do with it. Less dependence on canned food may help. It’s probably, alas, not our wonderful ability to treat the thing. And there is the faintest sign of hope for pancreatic cancer. At least for some people. Probably early detection by incidentally found early cancers, not, again alas, better treatment.

    There is no cure for cancer and probably never will be. Cancer is too many different diseases. But if we recognized that cancer and heart disease (among other problems) are a bigger threat to the US population than terrorism and way bigger than any theoretical threat of foreign invasion and funded the NIH like we do the Pentagon, we could be vastly further along and have far more cures than we do.

  16. jakc says

    One thing that strikes me in this post is the remarkable increases in genetics that have been achieved. I say that because I have been doing some reading in cladistics on the internet lately. It surprises me how often cladistic principles seem to be ignored, or at least relegated to an unimportant position. Back when I was in school, the tools to do cladistic analysis were not much different than those used by Linneaus, but now, with the revolution in genetics, I would think that it would be the only approach. And yet, if you go by the kind of science articles easily available on the internet, it doesn’t seem as if writers take using cladistics seriously. For examples, it’s easy to find articles putting sharks in a group with ray-finned fish, while excluding tetrapods. The use of parapheletic grouping, rather than the use of legitimate clades, seems odd to me, and I wonder why even casual science writing doesn’t make use of cladistics. I’m not a professional, and so don’t read the technical journals, so perhaps this is only a problem in less technical writing. On the other hand, I sometimes think that part of the reason that so many people have problems with evolution is that this sort of writing, the kind of thing where old world monkeys are grouped with new world monkeys rather than with humans and other apes, gives people all kinds of incorrect impressions about evolution.

    In the last 30 years, the genetics revolution has given so many tools to really understand evolutionary relationships. It seems a shame that when many people write about evolution that they don’t use the explanatory power of genetics better.

  17. brucegorton says

    I think one of the things that science is, when I look at the community around it at any rate, is win-win.

    If it was a race it would be one where each of the drivers was intensely interested in improving each others’ cars and driving. It is not ultimately a competitive field because each ‘breakthrough’ by one country ends up getting picked up by all countries, ultimately because cooperation leads to a better understanding of the mechanisms in play.

    If America comes to a basic understanding of, say, viruses that allows the world to figure out a penicillin analogue that cures HIV AIDS, it will ultimately end up being taught in science textbooks in South Africa – because scientific knowledge is the precise sort of power that grows the more it is shared.

    A South African university may build on an American university’s discovery, only to then have another American university build on that.

    The more people understand some basic knowledge on science, the more people there are who can figure more of it out.

    That undercuts the capitalist and imperialist narrative of most social constructs as unlike those science thrives not on exploitation where power is taken from one group and delivered to another, but by maximizing the power of all participants.

    And that I think is the thing with science that leads to progress – the fact that it is ultimately a cooperative endeavor that undercuts the basic idea that progress is by its nature a product of competition.

  18. Andy Groves says

    I would like to push back very gently on the possible misconception that the NIH is only concerned with translational, clinical research (or research that is “spun” to be translational). Yes, they are called the National Institutes of Health for a reason, but they also fund lots and lots of work that has no obvious or immediate translational impact. When scientists peer-reveiw NIH grants, they are specifically told to rate the significance of the grant, but that significance does not necessarily mean clinical significance. Here is a quote from the current instructions given to NIH grant reviewers:

    Does the project address an important problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field? If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved? How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

    I want to emphasize the “how will scientific knowledge be improved” bit, especially with regard to Chas’ Darwin quote above. It is possible to get basic research funded by the NIH, although both they and the NSF should be given much more money for their missions. As I said above, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, which is a crime and a tragedy.

  19. Ichthyic says

    Andy, in theory, what you said there is technically accurate.

    In practice, emphasis at NIH has shifted DRASTICALLY over the last 25 years. I’ve watched ENTIRE DEPARTMENTS get unfunded at major universities because of these shifts.

    It’s quite likely that indeed, there would be a gradual shift back towards funding basic research at both NIH and NSF if they had the kind of money they did in the 70s (relatively).

    but for the moment and forseeable future, that simply is not the case.

  20. Andy Groves says

    @Icthyic: I would certainly not deny that there has been a change in focus…. I have seen and heard some department chairs chase NIH money by only hiring scientists in fields they consider fundable.

    I am may be a bit sensitive to the notion you hear sometimes that only clinically-oriented (or clinically spun) work gets funded because I have been serving on NIH study sections for a while now. Some other things to bear in mind are that over the last 25 years, not only has the NIH increased enormously (although it is now being systematically eroded again…. thanks, Congress…) but our basic understanding of the science underlying mechanisms of disease has also increased enormously. As a result that the potential to take these basic discoveries in a more translational direction has also increased. And that’s a good thing, but only if it doesn’t choke off the basic research that was necessary in the first place.

    I also think that alongside the cuts in funding to the NIH and NSF, we should also consider the systemic (and systematic) underfunding of public universities in the US. When state money is pared to the bone, it creates pressure on universities to chase grants to make up the difference, as Chas sadly found out. And that sucks.

  21. dianne says

    Underfunding the NIH strikes me as stupid to the point of suicidal on the part of the politicians and their wealthy backers. Do they imagine that they are immortal? Do they think that their wealth makes them immune to cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems? They’ll find out otherwise soon enough, but only when it is too late for them to do anything useful. The Koch brothers will die old but they will die. And maybe they need not, at least not so soon. But they’re fool enough to encourage the politicians that they bought cut funding to the only organization that could save them-and so they will die very, very soon (in geological time).

  22. Wylann says

    It seems to me like this author is complaining about the wrong thing. He’s reading the headlines and hoopla, and not the actual papers and research. Of course one is going to be disappointed doing that.

  23. says

    I’m always surprised by how people are able to determine whether String Theory has succeeded. I have a PhD in Physics, yet I’d be hard pressed to understand a single equation from that field. There must be real genius out there to assess if it worked just out of thin air…

  24. Irrational Rationality says

    Joerg, I imagine it’s Dunning-Kruger again. William Lane Craig claims to have an alternative theory to special relativity that he calls “Neo-Lorentzian.” The precise mathematical formulation of this theory has never been produced, and he’s never bothered to show that it is equivalent to SR in terms of observable predictions, nor has it been shown that this “theory” can be generalized in a way which is equivalent to general relativity. He believes in it solely because he needs it to be true in order to defend A theory of time, which he thinks he needs for the Kalam argument. The less people know about physics, the more willing they seem to be to make absurd, sweeping statements which are either demonstrably false or too confused and vague to mean anything. String theory and quantum field theory notoriously attract a lot of Dunning-Kruger critics, as does the work of Einstein.