Role of 'Professionalism' in Science

This will be our last commentary on the ENCODE theme. Here are few thoughtful commentaries, whose views of ENCODE hype are not as negative as ours. Also, they contain links to many other related blog posts.

In the pipeline: ENCODE: The Nastiest Dissent I’ve Seen in Quite Some Time

OpenHelix: Spanking #ENCODE

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If you go through Feynman’s 1974 speech of previous commentary, you will notice that it does not mention ‘professionalism’ or being nice to each other as a scientific trait. During its glorious history, scientists looked for the truth in nature, devised methods to find that truth and argued about correctness of each other’s method. If there were disagreements between two plausible explanations of a natural phenomenon, scientists tried to find clever methods to sort that out.

Much of that changed around 1970, when big government money started to pour into science and the class of professional scientists was born. After NASA’s success and huge popularity for government-backed large projects, Nixon announced that government would eliminate cancer by 1975 in his 1971 ‘war on cancer’ declaration. 1975 came and went away and cancer was not cured, but our science continued to get grandiose projects one after another.

In 2003, Andrew von Eschenbach, the director of the National Cancer Institute issued a challenge “to eliminate the suffering and death from cancer, and to do so by 2015”. This was supported by the American Association for Cancer Research in 2005 though some scientists felt this goal was impossible to reach and undermined von Eschenbach’s credibility.

Those projects were often backed by ridiculous claims of success by politicians.

Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy – every dollar.

Unfortunately, scientists, who should know better, used the same public manipulation techniques to seek research funding. Steven Salzberg said in his Forbes article “Congress Is Killing Medical Research” -

And for those who want to look at this from an economic perspective , NIH funding is a terrific investment. A nonpartisan study in 2000 concluded:

Publicly funded research in general generates high rates of return to the economy, averaging 25 to 40 percent a year.

We hope this era of professional science ends soon so that we can go back to the old days, when scientists were truth seekers first and government grant seekers much later.


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Written by M. //