Occupy science?

Today’s seminar began in the usual boring manner. Truth be told, many of us graduate students peruse Facebook or play clickity games on smart phones while some student, faculty, or in a handful of cases, a guest speaker drones on about their research. The Pharmaceutical Sciences consists of two very different groups of people: those making drugs and those making new ways to formulate and deliver drugs. In any case, no matter who they invite or who is presenting, half the audience tunes out and bemoans either the interruption in work or the chance to go home before dark. One poor guy started snoring today. I sympathize. I’ve napped during seminar more than I care to admit.

So as I clickity-clicked, I listened to the guest speaker point out the flaws with nanotechnology. My initial response of “Interesting, but not my field” began to shift as he drove his point home. He pointed to over half a dozen entrepreneurs that affected dramatic change in society by their inventions or ideas, making the ironic observation that most were college drop-outs. They dared to pursue a passion rather than remain within the defined confines of academia and business. He dared us, not to drop out of course, but rather to change the direction of science, to think outside accepted scientific dogma.

To be expected, his criticism of the nanotechnology bandwagon sparked heated comments, since half or more of the audience work in the area of drug delivery and nanotechnology. He pointed out that while nanotechnology has improved the efficacy of drugs and allowed decreases in dosing to alleviate dangerous side effects, it has not advanced medicine in any sizable degree over the past ten years. Nanotechnology has made a difference, but only as an incremental improvement, another tool to add to our drug discovery and formulation toolbox. Harnessing electricity, discovery of penicillin, the invention of vaccines: these are discoveries which vastly changed the quality of life for all humanity.

In the nineties we thought the genome project would answer everything, but a decade later we learned that one gene can play many roles. Then came the era of proteonomics, and then nanotechnology. Combine the bandwagon trend (if you aren’t working on the “in” thing, good luck getting funded) with the slow shift away from basic science the statistics show stagnant drug discovery. Even the National Science Foundation warns that this disturbing evidence combined with the decrease in government funding is bad news for the country and progress.

As a graduate student, and a person who never fails to ask “But why? How?” it’s become increasingly clear to me that there’s still far more we don’t know, despite our advances. Yet, ask any professor in the department, and if he or she can’t somehow show a direct medical application, funding is just about non-existent. Even for solid applied research funds are sadly in short supply. The complaints I hear lend me to fear that the funding, which is primarily by the government, is as laden with cronies and politics as Washington D.C.

I echo the concerns of the speaker today, but wonder, in a money driven society, can change really and truly occur? Even now I see my department shrinking before my eyes as funding dwindles to a trickle. A multitude of factors contribute, lack of focus on science in public schools, the increased cost of secondary education, poor economy, etc. What happens when all but the wealthiest universities can afford research programs in the basic sciences? The divide of rich and poor will grow and the country as a nation will fall farther behind the rest of the world.

What’s to be done? Like many things in this country, change is needed. We can start by encouraging young people to study math and science. For those of us already in the field and facing financial and ideological obstacles, I can only repeat the sentiment the speaker shared: “Pursue your passion. Persevere. Never give up.”




One response to “Occupy science?

  1. I fear that we as a nation have lost our innovation and ingenuity in the pursuit of maintaining the status quo. Our educational system is sinking like Enron stocks after the accounting scandal, and we can no longer claim to be the world’s leader in anything but consumption and military. It scares me for the future.

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