On “The Lie” of Basic Science

Why pursue knowledge for its own sake?

Mark Humphries
Oct 23, 2017 · 8 min read
The free intellectual pursuit of knowledge. Credit: teddybeardiary.com

One aspiration for civilisation is the intellectual pursuit of science for its own end. Using money not just to meet the immediate needs of the people, not just to tackle the problems at hand, but to better understand the world and our place within it. Basic science is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Its unrestricted exploration of big questions by trained, equipped, smart people is a good thing for society. For who knows where the answers to our problems may be found?

Daniel Sarewitz calls this The Lie. He argues that science disconnected from technology, from rooted, real-world problem solving, is lost. That basic science does not, and never has, made good on its promise to find benefits to society from the free exploration of ideas by unfettered intellects and driven curiousity seekers. Instead, he calls for abandoning the idea of state-funded basic science, and turning to a problem-driven culture.

If you are a scientist, you almost certainly do not agree. I am; and instinctively I do not. But he makes a compelling case, putting forward a litany of discomforting facts and examples. While his may be an extreme position, it forces us to consider how we can justify the existence of science.

Sarewitz’s case is based on the simple observation that technology leads science. Take the digital computer. You’re almost certainly reading this on some variation of the digital computer, whether it be in your hand, on your wrist, or propped up on your tummy in bed. The design and construction of the first digital computers was largely driven by the needs, and deep pockets, of the United States military. They solved problems of cryptography and trajectory. They were invented to calculate at super-human speeds and with super-human reliability. Then their existence begat an entirely new area of science in order to understand the computer: computer science.

Similarly, the discovery of vaccines begat immunology. The invention of powered flight begat aerodynamics. The invention of the telegraph begat information theory. Technology leading science.

His case for The Lie is bolstered by the multiple crises apparently besieging basic science. The reproducibility crisis currently engulfing psychology, cancer research and others has arisen from the inability of labs to reproduce high-profile results. Instead of the accumulation of usable, beneficial knowledge by the free exploration of intellectual minds, we have an unholy mess of unreliable evidence. And one might well point the finger at the lack of a rigorously defined application as the underlying reason why so much science is not done to the highest standards of rigour. In this view, instead of science progressing, some areas of science seem to be going backwards, sucking in money and returning nothing.

And then there’s what we might call the academia crisis. Basic scientists free to pursue their own interests almost all work in academia, in universities and other institutions. But as many writers have noted, academia’s reward structure is antithetical to good science. By ranking academic scientists by the journal in which their papers appear and by the amount of funding they obtain, we set up the conditions where rigour and personal achievement are opposing foes; where making sure there is a roof over your head depends on getting surprising, positive results to get your papers into “important” journals, and so ensure in turn that you get a job. In such an environment, the science need not be guided by what benefits society, but what benefits the researcher.

Which would imply that much scientific funding is wasted. Indeed, Sarewitz considers the case study of breast cancer research, and how its lack of focus meant little tangible progress was being made on treatments or cures until sufferers got involved in dishing out the funding (this is not true, by the way). Worse, he points to the huge investment in animal models of Alzheimer’s Disease, and their apparent total irrelevance: no drug pioneered in a mouse model has made it far in clinical trials. The charge levied by Sarewitz is that scientists are doing what is practicable, not what is necessary.

Wow, that was depressing. As I said, Sarewtiz’s case is compelling — and I threw in some more points for good measure. Would you like some good news?

These arguments all have strong counterpoints. For a start, the current crises in reproducibility and academia do not show that basic science is fundamentally flawed, do not show that it cannot contribute to society and make good the returns on its investment. Indeed, by prioritising benefit to the researcher over benefit to society, one could argue that academia is preventing us from actually trying out basic science, of pursuing knowledge for knowledge sake. So it is difficult to argue that something is broken when its not actually been tried. Rather, how we reward those that do science is flawed, and that has the knock on effect of tying much scientific research in knots.

But not all of it. Among the examples we can draw on, both graphene and the gene-editing tool CRISPR are recent examples of how basic science, driven by pure curiousity, can launch a revolution. Graphene, discovered by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov mucking about with some pencil shavings, is an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms. Its applications cross batteries and solar cells and touch-screens and materials for building cars, boats, and tennis rackets (for what better use of a new ultra-light, flexible material than enabling Roger Federer to serve at more than 150mph on a routine basis, and thus prolonging his extraordinary career? What greater benefit to society than a few more years of the Federer backhand does Sarewitz want? I mean, apart from a solution to world hunger, world peace, climate change and similarly inconvenient matters). Commercial investment in graphene has been extraordinary; and even if graphene itself ultimately proves a dead-end, its discovery catalysed the search for other wafer-thin forms of structure in other useful elements, like silicene (silicon in a sheet).

CRIPSR, discovered as a self-defense mechanism bacteria use to eject invading viruses from their DNA, now allows us precise editing of theoretically any DNA. We already have demonstrations of it being used to edit faulty DNA in embryos, and of creating gene drives (editing-in DNA that would prevent a species from breeding to control their infestation, such as mosquitoes) — leaving aside the slightly more tricky ethical question of whether we actually want to do these things.

And Sarewitz’s account simply ignores all the extraordinary insights basic science has brought us. In physics, electromagnetism, atomic structure, relativity, and quantum mechanics. In biology, evolution by natural selection, the structure of DNA, the structure of RNA, and so on. From both, the development of MRI from the study of nuclear magnetic resonance. (Sarewitz may rightly retort here that these mostly predate the huge state investment in basic science, which is his target. True. But then so do his examples of technology leading science. And if the argument is over whether or not basic science can produce beneficial insights, then these are all evidence that it can. The bigger question is whether there are any more such huge leaps left to find; if not, then indeed we cannot support the massive state-funded apparatus of basic science. How though would we find out the answer to that question without doing science?)

Medical research, the target of much of Sarewitz’s ire, has a problem not considered in his argument. In medical research, the directions of basic science are as much a question of ethics and the tolerance of society.

Take the problem with the mouse models of Alzheimer’s Disease. No one would seriously claim they have the full blown equivalent of human Alzheimer’s Disease. Because mice don’t get any form of dementia. Or schizophrenia. Or Parkinson’s disease. Or Huntington’s disease. These are uniquely humans diseases. So in an ideal world we would use an animal model closer to humans: monkeys or primates. In a few cases, we do have such models — the MPTP model of Parkinson’s disease for example.

But political and public will against using monkeys and especially primates in research is intense in the EU and the USA. There are scant few labs doing this work in the EU; and such facilities are also scarce in the USA. We have made the collective and understandable decision that putting primates through the deprivations necessary to do science is not acceptable.

That means we’re faced with a stark ethical dilemma. Either we abandon research into debilitating disorders — Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and many others; or we continue to work with mouse and other models of these disorders in the hope that they will yield an insight one day. Science has chosen the latter option, chosen to do something rather than nothing.

Each scientist has within a locked compartment of their mind another area of science they consider a waste of money. A field of science that sucks in money and returns little of value to society. Get them drunk enough, and they’ll tell you what it is. If we organised a massive piss-up and took the consensus of every scientist’s secretly held desire to do away with their wastrel field, if we gathered them all together and acted on these secret desires, what would we be left with? Would any area of science survive? Few would be left standing, I’d wager. Which means that as much as we might reflexively think Sarewitz’s position is hogwash, collectively we probably aren’t that far from agreeing with him.

And we have to be careful what we wish for. Scientists repeatedly ask funders in exasperation: what will you fund? (In other words: why aren’t you funding my work?) A few years ago the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council took these scientists at their word, and started saying explicitly which specific fields of research they wanted to invest in and grow — and which they wanted to shrink. There was outcry by scientists who suddenly found themselves in a field that the EPSRC wanted to stop funding. By asking funders to prioritise areas of research, we are asking for them to specify the problems we should work on, a step closer to Sarewitz’s vision of science. The moral: don’t ask the administrators why your work is not being funded — you will regret it.

Sarewitz’s solution is to fund science that works towards a specific technological goal (where in his parlance, medical outcomes are also “technology”). But for many problems, it is not clear what that goal is. Again, take Alzheimer’s as an example. If you observed a patient with the pattern of memory and personality change symptoms that makes up Alzheimer’s, where would you start looking for a treatment? What would you do first? Yet we have multiple ideas for what goes wrong in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, of plaques, and tangles, and inflammation. And these have provided the goals against which we can design or find drugs; and for how we assess their effectiveness once we’ve found them. These ideas have all come from basic science.

So as much as basic science can find the solutions, the deeper role of basic science is to define the goals: to work out not just the answers — as Sarewitz would have it — but what the question should be in the first place.

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Twitter: @markdhumphries

Mark Humphries

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Uses his brain to understand brains. Is that possible? Neuroscience: https://humphries-lab.org

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