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Are You Kidding? Alas, Scientists Rarely Are

By Shlomo  Maital

science humor

   A friend drew my attention to an article in Chronicles of Higher Education, by Tom Bartlett,  Sept. 29, about the utter lack of humor in scientific research proposals, and in general, among scientists.  (An exception is the late Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, whose book was titled, Mr. Feynman, You Must Be Joking!).    Bartlett asked the editor of the leading economics journal, American Economic Review, whether  “she could think of any joke, any tiny moment of amusement, one solitary witticism that has passed across her desk. Anything, even if it was rejected.”   “I can’t think of a single thing,”  replied Prof. Goldberg, confirming economics’ nickname as the ‘dismal science’.

   Why is this a problem? Why shouldn’t science be utterly serious?  Isn’t humor frivolous?   The answer is no.  Research on creativity shows that among people seeking ideas,  humor, and in general a light, playful attitude,  are powerful contributors to an ambience that generates great ideas.  Show me a stiff, and I’ll show you someone without ideas, in all likelihood.

    Bartlett provides an example. 

    “Stephen Heard once wrote a paper about how pollen spreads among the flowers of a certain endangered plant. In it he speculated that the wind might play a role by shaking loose the pollen. To support his point, he cited “Hall et al., 1957″—a reference to the songwriters of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But a reviewer nixed Heard’s little joke. “Although I appreciated the levity of the reference,” he wrote, “I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication.”   

   That reviewer reminds us of the two old grumps in The Muppets, whose total lack of humor was in itself hilarious.    I myself encountered this, in submitting research papers; anything in my writing style that sought to be interesting, journalistic, was instantly shot down, like a shoulder-guided missile homing in on a helicopter. 

    Hey, reviewers!   Lighten up!   Loosen up!  We need new thinking, new ideas.   Absence of humor often means absence of open-ness to anything unusual or weird.   Even Einstein told jokes (bad ones – see above). 

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How Competing For Grants Kills Science – and Scientists’ Motivation

By Shlomo   Maital  

Science lab

   This is the sad story about how a shortage of resources, and the system of competitive funding of research grants through peer-review, is ruining U.S. science and killing scientists’ motivation.   I heard it today on America’s National Public Radio News, in a report by Richard Harris.

   Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right – attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.  But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.  So, he’s giving up on science.  Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.

Why is he giving up????  

Because to get grants, you need to ‘tweak’ safe existing ideas, so your peers will approve it; because if you have radical ideas, your peers who judge the grants competition will shoot them down, because if you succeed, those ideas will endanger the judges’ own safe, conventional, non-risky research.

“You’re focusing basically on one idea you already have and making it as presentable as possible,” he says. “You’re not spending time making new ideas. And it’s making new ideas, for me personally, that I found rewarding. That’s what my passion was about.”

    Glomski wanted to study anthrax ‘in vitro’, in live animals, using scanning techniques.  Today it’s done by analyzing tissues of dead animals. His idea might have failed. But if it succeeded, it could have utterly changed our understanding of anthrax and other such diseases. 

    In theory, peer-review of grants is fair.  But it fosters extreme mediocrity.  And as government funding of research declines, (20% cut in recent years),   competition gets fierce (1 of 8 grant proposals is successful, and it takes long stretches of time to prepare one – so young scientists spend their time writing proposals rather than doing effective research). 

    Harris reports that “…. payoffs in science come from out of the blue – oddball ideas or unexpected byways. Glomski says that’s what research was like for him as he was getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His lab leader there got funding to probe the frontiers. But Glomski sees that far-sighted approach disappearing today.”   Playing it safe will never generate the creative breakthroughs we need.

     As with many things in America, scientific research is utterly screwed up.  And it is unlike to change in the near future. 

Scientists Who Endanger Their Lives:  The Case of Ebola

By Shlomo  Maital    

ebola

   Scientific papers published in Science rarely involve heroism, drama, and life-threatening courage.   This one does:

Gire, SK, Goba, A et al. Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak. Science, 2014, online.

    Here is the story, as described in a dry press release by Harvard:

     “ n response to an ongoing, unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa, a team of researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, (MIT-Harvard),  in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and researchers across institutions and continents, has rapidly sequenced and analyzed more than 99 Ebola virus genomes. Their findings could have important implications for rapid field diagnostic tests. The team reports its results online in the journal Science.”

       The research was led by Broad Institute researcher Pardis Sabeti, Augustine Goba, Director of the Lassa Laboratory at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, and Stephen Gire, first author,  a research scientist in the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute and Harvard.  The team  shipped samples back to Boston, and then  20 people worked around the clock.   In one week:  they decoded gene sequences from 99 Ebola samples!  This is truly amazing. 

        What the team did was to act rapidly to collect samples of Ebola from a Sierra Leone hospital last April, when the outbreak began, and then gathered additional samples as the virus spread and mutated.  They did this under life-threatening conditions, especially those on the ground on-site, because at the time there was insufficient protective gear for hospital workers, and some indeed died. 

       They gathered 99 samples of Ebola in all. Then they decoded the genome of each sample.  This was unprecedented in its speed.   What they found was important.  The Ebola virus has only 7 genes (!) compared to the human genome, comprising more than 20,000 genes.  Like all viruses, Ebola penetrates the human cell and commandeers its DNA mechanism, to make more viruses rather than human DNA.  Ebola is fatal in 52 per cent of all cases.

      The Broad Institute researchers found that Ebola initially spread from an animal to a human.  BUT —  from then on, it ONLY spread among humans.  The initial call to avoid mangos and meat was uncalled for.  And like all viruses, they found that the virus evolved and mutated very quickly in humans.  So, we are in a race, between ‘brilliant’ humans with huge brains, and ‘stupid’ viruses with only 7 genes ..and at the moment, the viruses seem to be winning. 

   I salute the courageous scientists and their assistants on-site, for risking their lives to help save the lives of others.  Sometimes, not often, science is life-threatening,  and quickly, life-saving. 

     In this space, I’ve been fiercely critical of Big Pharma, which rips us off by charging scandalously high prices for drugs with minimal impact.  But for once,  Big Pharma is doing the right thing.   GSK Glaxo Smith Kline is helping the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop an Ebola vaccine.  Only GSK’s huge productive capacity can do this quickly enough to combat the spread of Ebola. 

    

 

 

 

 

 

By Shlomo  Maital    

   Scientific papers published in Science rarely involve heroism, drama, and life-threatening courage.   This one does:

Gire, SK, Goba, A et al. Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak. Science, 2014, online.

    Here is the story, as described in a dry press release by Harvard:

     “ n response to an ongoing, unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa, a team of researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, (MIT-Harvard),  in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and researchers across institutions and continents, has rapidly sequenced and analyzed more than 99 Ebola virus genomes. Their findings could have important implications for rapid field diagnostic tests. The team reports its results online in the journal Science.”

       The research was led by Broad Institute researcher Pardis Sabeti, Augustine Goba, Director of the Lassa Laboratory at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, and Stephen Gire, first author,  a research scientist in the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute and Harvard.  The team  shipped samples back to Boston, and then  20 people worked around the clock.   In one week:  they decoded gene sequences from 99 Ebola samples!  This is truly amazing. 

        What the team did was to act rapidly to collect samples of Ebola from a Sierra Leone hospital last April, when the outbreak began, and then gathered additional samples as the virus spread and mutated.  They did this under life-threatening conditions, especially those on the ground on-site, because at the time there was insufficient protective gear for hospital workers, and some indeed died. 

       They gathered 99 samples of Ebola in all. Then they decoded the genome of each sample.  This was unprecedented in its speed.   What they found was important.  The Ebola virus has only 7 genes (!) compared to the human genome, comprising more than 20,000 genes.  Like all viruses, Ebola penetrates the human cell and commandeers its DNA mechanism, to make more viruses rather than human DNA.  Ebola is fatal in 52 per cent of all cases.

      The Broad Institute researchers found that Ebola initially spread from an animal to a human.  BUT —  from then on, it ONLY spread among humans.  The initial call to avoid mangos and meat was uncalled for.  And like all viruses, they found that the virus evolved and mutated very quickly in humans.  So, we are in a race, between ‘brilliant’ humans with huge brains, and ‘stupid’ viruses with only 7 genes ..and at the moment, the viruses seem to be winning. 

   I salute the courageous scientists and their assistants on-site, for risking their lives to help save the lives of others.  Sometimes, not often, science is life-threatening,  and quickly, life-saving. 

     In this space, I’ve been fiercely critical of Big Pharma, which rips us off by charging scandalously high prices for drugs with minimal impact.  But for once,  Big Pharma is doing the right thing.   GSK Glaxo Smith Kline is helping the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop an Ebola vaccine.  Only GSK’s huge productive capacity can do this quickly enough to combat the spread of Ebola. 

Can We Believe Scientific Results?

By Shlomo Maital

          Lab

  The Oct. 19 issue of The Economist has “How Science Goes Wrong” on its cover. It contains a worrisome article that leads off with a quote from Nobel Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman: “I see a train wreck coming”.  The article deals with the very foundation of credible scientific research: The ability to replicate (repeat) scientific experiments, to verify that the results are true.   It turns out, most scientific publications cannot be replicated.  The Economist reports:

     An American drug company Amgen tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer.  They were able to replicate the original results in just six.

   What is the problem?  Why can results be reproduced?

   Here is a rather difficult explanation, by The Economist, based on work by Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist.   Suppose 1 in 10 hypotheses are true.  Consider tests of 1,000 hypotheses, of which 100 are true.  These tests have a 5% false positive rate (5 times in 100, a test says a hypothesis is true when it is false).  So of 900 false hypotheses, 5% x 900 = 45 are proved true. 

    Most tests have a statistical ‘power’ of 0.8, meaning 8 of 10 true hypotheses are proven true.  So only 80 of the 100 true hypotheses are proven true.  This means there are 20 false negatives (true hypotheses proven false). 

     Summary:  80 true hypotheses are proven true; 45 false hypotheses are also proven true.  So 45/120  false hypotheses are said to be true, fully one third. 

   Ironically:  the negative results are far more reliable. But journals hate to publish negative results (i.e. no, broccoli is NOT great for your prostate). 

      At a festive dinner here in Paris for Technion I sat next to a researcher who runs a medical research lab with a one billion euro budget.  He told me of rising pressure to attain results, and collapsing budgets.  There is huge pressure on scientists to publish results, under the threat of grant cancellation.  One of this year’s Nobel Chemistry Laureates said he got no results at all for five years, and if he were repeating this work today, he would have lost his NSF grant long ago.

     Many journalists report scientific research, especially related to food, and many of us take it seriously.  We drink more or less coffee, eat more or less broccoli, based on it.  Perhaps we should stop and just eat and drink what we like.  Why forego coffee for twenty years just to learn the original research was erroneous?

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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