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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Science needs saving from The New Atlantis [updated]

In the 1960s, "curiosity-driven" scientists took some soil samples from Easter Island. They ended up discovering the drug rapamycin (named after the island's name Rapa Nui), the importance of which--relevant to subjects ranging from cancer to Alzheimer's to longevity--is unfolding even now decades later. These scientists had no idea such a substance was in the Easter Island soil, and there were some twists and turns on the road to identifying and elucidating the drug. Read more here.

I bring this up in response to an essay in the conservative journal The New Atlantis "Saving Science," by Daniel Sarewitz, which argues that the "free play of free intellects" as scientific ideal is a "lie" that wastes time and resources generating esoteric and unreliable results, and that science ought to be far more oriented toward applied research. I'm all for applied research, but the attitude espoused in this essay would never have led to the discovery of rapamycin and, more broadly, would foreclose any number of avenues of research that may have practical benefits that are totally invisible at the outset.

We live in a world that does not always reveal its secrets in compliance with some bureaucratic program and timetable. Moreover, we live in a world that doesn't always comply with political ideology. One effect of the New Atlantis piece, and plausibly a motivation, is to reassure conservatives that the vast gap that has emerged between science and conservatism in recent years is nothing to worry about--indeed, reflects that science has gone wrong, not conservatism. We've had years of lowbrow right-wing attacks on science re climate, evolution and more. So a highbrow attack was in order, to bolster the confidence of conservative intellectuals that they still deserve the label.

UPDATE: The journal's editor got in touch with me, and I sent a letter discussing this in more detail (focused on the rapamycin story), to be published in due course.

UPDATE 8/30: In debating this topic on Twitter, I came across an amusing aspect of Sarewitz's argument. His description of curiosity-driven science is thus:
The fruits of curiosity-driven scientific exploration into the unknown have often been magnificent. The recent discovery of gravitational waves — an experimental confirmation of Einstein’s theoretical work from a century earlier — provided a high-publicity culmination of billions of dollars of public spending and decades of research by large teams of scientists. Multi-billion dollar investments in space exploration have yielded similarly startling knowledge about our solar system, such as the recent evidence of flowing water on Mars. And, speaking of startling, anthropologists and geneticists have used genome-sequencing technologies to offer evidence that early humans interbred with two other hominin species, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Such discoveries heighten our sense of wonder about the universe and about ourselves.
And he goes on to explain that this kind of science doesn't offer much in the way of practical benefits.
So one might be forgiven for believing that this amazing effusion of technological change truly was the product of “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.” But one would be mostly wrong.
And yet...look at one of his (few) examples of curiosity-driven science: the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. And then look at this:

Of course, this sort of knowledge has all kinds of implications for genetic counseling and genetic therapy. It turns out there are some practical consequences even to that free play of free intellects. I'm reminded of this today because a new batch of Neanderthal genome data has been released

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