Posts filed under ‘Biomedical research’
I am just finishing the second of a duo of fantastic books about science and scientists. The first one, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, is about a plethora of issues relating to “down to the ground” economics, ie. about the most basic incentives that drive people’s decisions to satisfy their needs one way or another. The second, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, is a collection of autobiographical anecdotes by Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, lesser known for his immense breadth of extracurricular interests and an uncanny inclination to mischief. The two books have rather little in common, but one theme links them: scientific curiosity of brilliant researchers. Both Levitt and Feynman just radiate curiosity. They have this amazing ability to find questions in everyday situations that nobody has asked before, to follow them through, and to solve mysteries that no one even knew were there. I kind of envy them. I wish I had more time for actually thinking, for data interpretation, for reading and such. Instead, I spend so much time at the lab bench that at the end of the day I am totally exhausted and even thinking of science gives me gag reflex. Everything is rushed. You have to be thinking about the next grant deadline, the next paper. Where did the curiosity go? Who stole it from me?
I have just stumbled upon a book called “Against Intellectual Monopoly” by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, two economists from Washington University in St. Louis. As the title implies they argue in it against the patent system as a whole because it supposedly stifles innovation and brings very little in return. They support their case with numerous examples in a number of areas, some of which I find more, some less convincing. Interestingly, they dedicated a whole chapter to the pharmaceutical industry. They acknowledged the pharmaceutical industry as one of the most costly, and therefore likely to benefit from patent protection, so they reasoned that if they could refute the case for patents there, they could do it anywhere.
Nobody in their right mind will deny that there is a lot of things that are wrong with Big Pharma. Shameless lobbying, physician bribing, exorbitant drug prices all give pharmaceutical industry giants a bad rap. Are patents to blame? Boldrin and Levine argue that they play a big part.
I was kind of hoping I would be able to get a little vacation away from Open Access, but it seems to be chasing me around. There is a lot of hype in the Interwebs about a Merck spin-off non-profit organization called Sage. For those of you who haven’t heard about it yet, please see here, here, and for a more skeptical approach here and here. Open Access supporters are cheering loudly to praise the pharmaceutical giant for their good will in supposedly donating a huge amount of data to the project. The founders, Stephen Friend and Eric Schadt, liken the project to a new “Science Facebook” and happily paint the future of drug discovery with bright colors as a network of scientists all interacting together for the greater good of the society. However, there is virtually nothing on what the system is going to look like and what it is going to contain. After some more googling, I found this interview with Schadt, which sheds a bit more light on the whole deal.
Anyone knows who John Wilbanks is? Well, I just found out. Recently a post on slashdot caught my attention – it was both science-y and geeky – a combo I simply couldn’t resist. It linked to an interview with the said John Wilbanks, where he speaks very wisely indeed about some of the central issues of modern science: scientific communication, open access publishing, data accessibility and storage, and more. John is VP of Science at Creative Commons (article on Wikipedia) an organization whose sole purpose is to make it easier for people to share their creative work if they so desire (check out this movie on YouTube for a no-brainer explanation of how it works, and this website for another movie on how it relates to science). As the interview is rather lengthy, I decided to summarize its main themes in this post, and, well, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t take the liberty to venture a few opinions of my own.
The Web is rife with news stories regarding a paper just published in PLOS Medicine about a benign tumor that arose in a child treated with fetal neural “stem cell” therapy for ataxia telangiectasia in a Moscow clinic. Most of the reports are total crap, showing typical journalistic dilettantism, and spreading “stem cells are BAD” FUD. Just about the best news story I was able to find on the subject is (not surprisingly) on The Scientist website. The discussion that follows is also pretty interesting, so if you have a subscrption, be sure to check it out. There are a few points, however, I would like to elaborate on a bit further.
I used to cringe with disgust whenever I heard of the so called “underrepresented minorities”. I would get all red in the face, hyperventilate, and start ranting about how supporting these people is just reverse discrimination, how it is taking money away from the most meritorious and so on, and so forth. To hell with all political correctness! Now don’t get me wrong, I think that underprivileged members of the society deserve some degree of stimulus so that the ones with the most potential are not hindered in their dreams by their poverty and so that we can avoid a polarization of the society a la France on the eve of the Revolution. BUT, my reasoning so far has been that this stimulus should be applied on the basis of one’s financial status, NOT their ethnic background or the color of their skin. I have, however, been missing one important point…
When coming back from a conference recently, I had an interesting conversation with my PI about grantsmanship and in particular on why on earth do federal funding agencies in the US still refuse to fund exploratory science, or, in grantsmanship parlance, so called “fishing expeditions”. While almost every single paper in C/N/S level journals in biomedical sciences has some kind of microarray analysis in it, the decision-makers at NIH still fail to acknowledge the importance of such studies.