Saturday 18 June 2011

Science reporting: from breakthroughs to projects


Scientific progress has gone into reverse, and one of the most obvious signs is that the media now do not report breakthroughs but projects.

eg. Some random biological fact is 'expected to' lead to a cure for cancer; Professor x has won a multimillion grant to make discovery y; University z has built a vast new (eco-friendly) institute and filled it with people and machines...


Of course, this began some time ago with the human genome project, the rise of brain imaging, the relabelling exercise of 'nanotechnology' and with money-raising for the big physics machines.

None of these led to anything interesting or useful, but created a new evaluation system in (what still calls itself) science.

So, for the past generation, most research careers have been built by 'working-on' problems - the solution to which would be, it is claimed, a breakthrough.


We no longer wait to find out whether something actually does lead to any significant or useful outcome - presumably because they very seldom do.

Best to get the publicity on the basis of what research might do, rather than await inevitable disappointment.


But anyway, nobody is interested in scientific breakthroughs. Nowadays a breakthrough is something which leads to major new funding opportunities.

That was why the Human Genome Project was regarded as the most important research in history. Scientifically it was nothing, professionally it was a gravy train.

As big grant awards and expensive projects are themselves the sole and sufficient purpose of a research career, then naturally these are what gets reported and celebrated.

And dressing-up bureaucratic expansion as a scientific breakthrough is business-as-usual for the modern media.



dearieme said...

One thing the Human Genome Project announced in advance was the number of our genes - some 100,000 were to be identified and located. Or not, as it turned out.

Bruce Charlton said...

Indeed - and there has been little interest in the impilcations of humans having only about a quarter of the expected genes.

Because even before the human genome had been finished (even before the premature announcement of a 'draft', indeed, has it even yet really been finished? Don't tell me, - I don't really care...) attention was immediately refocused on finding the next big biochemistry funding project - which was supposed to be 'proteomics' (a new name for something old - I did my doctorate in peptides which are short proteins); the proteomics term currently has six and a half million Google hits - already half the number of hits for 'genomics'.

Brett Stevens said...

Everything has gone into reverse. We are no longer looking to achieve unity of human and cosmos; we are looking to impress other humans.

That way we can sell them stuff, seduce them, or get them to vote for us.

To say our society is inward-looking only captures part of the problem...

S. Thompson said...

I come from a scientific background and it's nice to know others feel the same about these 'omics revolutions. There is very little scientific progress going on that is actually equivalent to proper discovery of new facts based on a series of logical deductions. More importantly how what percentage of the reported proteomics and genomics experiments are actually reproducible? The answer would be a sad reflection on the state of modern science.

Alexander Patalenski said...

I read about this trend some 20 years ago and watch it going on like this until these days, so it might be more than a mere trend... Maybe this is the faith of all the so-called "exact sciences"?

When a Science ceases "to be exact" in explaining its Subject (because its main product has become more hypothetical than factual), it starts to be regarded more as an economic Bubble than as a Human Knowledge...