Saturday, November 24, 2012

How's the cure for AIDS coming?

Adam Ruben, contributor of the column Experimental Error for some little journal called Science as well as author of the book Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, has posted this column about triviality in research. It's worth reading, both because it's funny and also because the frustration of "why am I doing this?" is common. It's common at smaller graduate departments, for sure, but even at the Big Universities where they solve Big Problems, there's lots of boring work. And the triviality leads grad students and onlookers to question why we're doing what we are. From the column:
"We’re accused of wasting money, wasting time. Spending 15 years on compounds that no human will ever likely inject or ingest. Studying the dusty corners of the universe but neglecting the bigger picture. Bear DNA. Shrimp on treadmills. The mating habits of screwworms. Writing our obscure little papers in our obscure little journals, blind to the fact that our research will only elucidate the trivial, or, even worse, the obvious. 
Now that the question has been asked, I see this attitude everywhere. Comedians say things like: “This week, scientists at Johns Hopkins University published a study proving that straight men enjoy looking at breasts. Do we really need a study for that?” Or Jay Leno’s snarky reply to research he deems unimportant: “Scientists at UCLA announced they have developed a unicycle for squirrels. Hey guys—how’s that cure for AIDS coming?” 
And that’s where I feel conflicted. Because a part of me acknowledges, sensibly, that a squirrel unicycle is a waste of time and money (though probably darn cute). But another part gets mad, wanting to yell at the TV, “We’re not all working on cures for AIDS, dumbass!” 
Then the first part asks the second part, “Um … why aren’t you?” 
Our kneejerk reflex—and also the usual response of scientific authorities when confronted with a claim that some bit of research is trivial—is to counter that our accuser just doesn’t understand how science works. What if every scientist had been forced to justify his or her wacky-sounding research? 
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek: “Well, I’m looking through pieces of glass at thin slices of cork.” 
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s Backwards and Anachronistic Uncle Who Likes AM Talk Radio and Reruns of 7th Heaven: “Hey Antonie, how’s that cure for bodily humor imbalance in black bile coming?”"
The comments from Jay Leno types he points out remind me of Eric Cantor's YouCut Citizen Review (or as it might be better called, Eric Cantor's Intellectual Crime against Humanity). It's a definite problem in science--the idea that taxpayers, as the source of funding, are also the best ones to judge if research is worthwhile. Are they? (Spoiler: no, they aren't).

Anyhow, read the column. And read his other stuff. It's good.