Final Project Rough Draft
Seminar in Composition
When we look at the last one hundred years in terms of scientific discovery, we are often amazed out how far humans have come in so short a time. Is it really so impressive though? In the grander scope of the universe, how much do we actually know? Next to nothing. As humans, we see ourselves as limitless beings who can go on to discover everything there is. However, even if our intelligence would allow for unlimited growth and discovery, our intelligence has made that impossible through its development of a hierarchical structure that defines how we function in nearly every aspect of society. No longer is a hierarchy contained to the government or to businesses. Every aspect of life is now an industry with a ladder of climbing ranks that everyone is always looking to ascend. While a hierarchy is effective in some places, in others it can become a major hindrance. One such place is in the realm of scientific research. While it is true that people are always looking for more answers about ourselves and the universe we live in, it is also true that how and what we study is greatly limited by the structure in which scientists must operate. The current structure of science as an “industry” is hindering advancements in technology and knowledge that could improve the quality of life and longevity of individuals and of society as a whole. Humans as individuals and as a race need to redefine the qualifications and motives behind scientific research in order to survive and thrive. We should do so by reevaluating the current structure of the scientific industry and reforming it so that it is not based solely on wealth and connections to powerful people within the system.
To even begin looking for funding from organization, scientists must first build up their reputations. Doing so requires connections with individuals higher up than them in the scientific hierarchy. There are the hospital administrators, college and university professors and researchers, and other scientists who have already established themselves through their own research. To get in with these people, you need to find exactly the right internships while you are still in college, know how to infiltrate their social and professional groups, and use every form of flattery you can to please or impress them. In other words, be the epitome of a people pleaser. Once you find people in the field, you have the ability to publish articles and work with those people on their projects. Only after you have your name connected to someone higher up in the hierarchy will any company even consider reviewing any grant applications of yours. The grant application process is extremely long and complicated. According to scientist Peter A. Lawrence, every grant has to make it past two groups of people, the marketers or accountants of the company, and the scientific review board. Both are conditioned to not accept the majority of applications. Marketers and accountants only want to give money to projects they know will succeed, while the scientists are more concerned with their own reputations, which they do not want to risk by passing through acceptances for projects that may not be successful. Even projects that are deemed acceptable by both groups often are not awarded grants because, according to Richard Mann, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University, “there just aren’t enough funds in a single…grant to pay for a PI salary, plus supplies, plus the salaries of one or two other people.” Ultimately, you may have a life changing idea and a solid grant application, but if the project is too large, risky, or it doesn’t play into the agenda of the company, you will never get funded.
The lack of sufficient funding and the difficulty in obtaining the funding is the fault of the hierarchy. Everyone is protecting their own interests, so they are never willing to risk their position to back research that is unusual or completely untested. That untested research, however, could be the key to unlocking new technology or insights. For example, a scientist may believe they have found a new and improved cancer treating drug. However, that scientist will have a hard time finding a company to fund them. Those companies who would be interested in funding cancer drugs, are most likely already doing so. With a stake in already proven drugs, those companies do not want to risk their profits by endorsing another drug. Additionally, the research would be expensive, and if the study concludes that the new drug is ineffective, the company is out of the money they spent on funding. These risks make it difficult for new drugs to be tested. The same drug that doesn’t get tested, though, could be the same drug that safely cures cancer and ensures longer lives in patients.
New drugs are not the only things being shortcut by the system. Technology that could be helpful in diagnosing and treating patients is also left without funding. One such piece of technology is associated with the science of teledermatopathology. This branch of science deals with using slides with pictures of the body on them for diagnostic purposes. The new technology would be able to send the slides across the world so that places with less highly trained doctors can serve patients with the help of doctors from other areas. Although the technology has been found effective, there are laws in place that require each institution in possession of a machine to use their own money to test it to make sure it is efficient. There is little to no funding for such testing, which means that many patients will go undiagnosed. The lack of funding costs people their lives, and that comes at the benefit of those who are working their way up the hierarchy. Nobody wants to risk losing their job over a risky grant or an expensive test, so they play it safe and only grant money to scientists whose ideas are noncontroversial and are likely to work or to those who are above themselves in the hierarchy. Small scientists with great ideas are boxed out of the arena and their ideas are forgotten or stashed away.
R.C. Lewontin condemns this system in his work, “Biology as Ideology.” According to Lewontin, humans are self-concerned beings. The structure of the scientific hierarchy plays right into this, rewarding those who are seeking to move up the hierarchy and ignoring those only looking to make scientific discoveries. There is a preoccupation with status quo that causes companies to filter the studies they back. Lewontin demonstrates this by using the example of studies regarding the DNA of people of different races. Both white and black children in Britain had their genes looked at and compared to their IQ scores. While the study revealed no underlying biological difference between the children of different races, those behind the study revealed something about themselves through their choice to pursue this type of research. Instead of looking into research that could positively change the future, they were looking for research that would maintain the status quo, so that they could say there was a reason that a minority was rightfully below them in the hierarchy. As Lewontin writes, “it is meant to legitimize the structures of inequality in our society by putting a biological gloss on them” (Lewontin, 37). Individuals and companies will only support research that benefits them and improves their position in the hierarchy, which is another reason the hierarchy is so destructive.
Individuals who benefit from the hierarchical system of the scientific industry obviously find ways to attempt to validate its existence. One way they do so is by asserting that the system serves as a filter. It keeps the unqualified and unreliable scientist out and keeps the successful and reliable ones in. Without it, they claim, anyone would be able to begin their own study. This could lead to the wasting of money that could be used for other, more effective studies, or to the reduction of funding from companies or individuals who are turned off by bad projects in the past. Funding for research could diminish completely in this case and useless studies would be undertaken, taking up valuable resources. There is, indeed, a need for a filter in the scientific world, but this filter should not hinder the advance of legitimate research. If the hierarchy can be considered a filter, then it is doing its job so well that hardly anything can get through. The small, insignificant grains of research can get through, but the large chunks of gold that hold the real value are left behind.
An example of this is a recent study on a gene variant in Latina women that indicates a forty percent decrease in the likelihood of getting breast cancer. However, the study of this gene is so limited that scientists have gotten nothing from their research thus far. They are not taking any risks or trying anything new. The scientists believe that simply finding a small link between the gene and breast cancer constitutes an entire study. The issue is that they still know next to nothing about the gene and what triggers it and what causes it to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Lewontin would argue that the geneticists involved in this study are failing to make the distinction “between correlation and identity,” making the mistake of assuming that “it is the correlation that indicates the role of genes” (Lewontin, 34). The study has uncovered such a small piece of the puzzle that it is insignificant. It does nothing to get us closer to a cure or treatment for breast cancer. Development in genetics can often cause people to get excited about the possibilities of eliminating issues such as breast cancer, but it is important to stay grounded and realize the limitations of some genetic studies. The variant genes may appear to be the answer, but they could only be a partial answer or possibly not even that. The connections between the variant gene and a reduced risk of breast cancer may be the basis for more studies, but it is important to note that they do not provide us all of the answers. Due to the limitations of the scientific hierarchy, these are the only kinds of studies that are constantly being supported. Larger, riskier studies are pushed aside, even though they are the ones that could actually find a cure or treatment.
Danielle Giambrone, Babar K. Rao, Amin Esfahani, Shaan Rao, Obstacles hindering the mainstream practice of teledermatopathology, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 71, Issue 4, October 2014, Pages 772-780, ISSN 0190-9622, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2014.04.043.
Lawrence, P. (2009, September 15). Grantsmanship and the Application Process. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2735719/
Lewontin, R. (1992). Biology as ideology. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.
O'Connor, A. (2014). Genetic Variant May Shield Latinas From Breast Cancer. The New York Times. [online] Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/genetic-variant-may-shield-latinas-from-breast-cancer/?_php=true&_type=blogs&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A12%22%7D&_r=0 [Accessed 21 Oct. 2014].
Undsci.berkeley.edu, (2014). Who pays for science?. [online] Available at: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/who_pays [Accessed 19 Nov. 2014].