Seminar in Composition
Ensuring Success in Science
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. 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. This is highlighted in the article “Breaking the Ice and Forging Links: The Importance of Socializing in Research.” In the article, the authors state that “a solid network becomes a crucial element for future collaborations and taking the next steps in one’s careers” and that it is necessary for students to socialize with more experienced scientists or the path to their own research will be slower and less successful (Stobbe, Mishra, and Macintyre). Without the stepping stones that other scientists lay out for you, there is little hope to finding your own way. Socializing, therefore, is as much a part of science as the actual research.
Another issue is that 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. For prospective researchers, “original ideas are the kiss of death for a [grant] proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly” (Katz). These risks make it difficult for new drugs to be tested, and even if they are tested, there is no guarantee there will be sufficient funding to distribute them to the public for use. The same drug that doesn’t get tested or distributed, though, could be the same drug that safely treats cancer and ensures longer lives in patients.
This is the case with a drug developed in the United Kingdom by the pharmaceutical company Janssen. The drug, named abiraterone, has been proven to aid those who are dying of prostate cancer, “extending their lives by an extra four months on top of the three months from chemo” (Scowcroft). Abiraterone is effective at extending the lives of men with prostate cancer, but it faces the problem of a lack of funding. An organization named NICE has warned the National Health System in the United Kingdom not to pay for the use of abiraterone because it is not cost efficient. According to NICE, “the drug is simply too expensive for the benefit it brings” (Scowcroft). In other words, there is no way for the government nor Janssen to profit off of the drug, so they have taken it off of the list of options for men dying of prostate cancer. Instead of the extra few months a patient can have with their loved ones, they get no help, which is to the benefit of those who don’t want to risk their position in the hierarchy by approving a drug that yields little profit.
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.
The issue with bias in scientific research funding is hindering advancements that could benefit our society as a whole, but there are ways to combat that bias. Much of the problem is that private companies are being relied on more and more to fund research as the government struggles to rebound after the global economic recession that hit in 2008. The government’s largest tool for funding research is the National Institutes of Health, which gives $31 billion to scientists based on “a system of competitive, peer-reviewed grants” (Gollaher). This organization was responsible for funding the biotechnology industry through its granting of funds to researchers studying DNA in the 1970s, “which spawned the U.S.-dominant biotechnology industry” (Gollaher). However, any advantages this organization once had are being destroyed by a recent government sequestration that aims to reduce the amount of money given to scientists for research. According to the NIH, the government reduction in funds can lead to over 700 less grants being given each year. This means that due to the recession, the government has decided to take away funding from the very institution that helped fuel the biotechnology industry that fostered the United States’ economic growth since the 1970s. The decrease in funding for the NIH, therefore, slows economic growth and inhibits scientific discoveries. The NIH, unlike the private research funding companies, does not have to worry as much about how profitable new discoveries will be because they are given their money by the government and do not profit directly from the success of the research they fund. For this reason, the government should focus on finding ways to maintain the place of the NIH and other similar institutions in the national budget. By resourcing their money from tax breaks and subsidies for companies that may or may not foster economic and scientific growth, there will be more money going toward a tried and proven system.
Reform should not fall solely into the hands of the government, though, because private funders, such as universities, will continue to be a presence through the power of their money. The major issue is the grant process that they use. In an article entitled “The Grant Application Process,” Wanda K. Johnston outlines the unnecessary extension of the development of a grant. From its birth, a grant is tainted because the scientist must only come up with “a project idea that is compatible with the college’s mission and strategic plan” (Johnston, 70). Other than needing to ignore projects they may be interested in, scientists must undergo the writing of a lengthy, overly-detailed twelve page application. That application must include information on the researchers “experience, history, accomplishments, and expertise,” along with the issue being addressed, the exact methodology, plan for success, and use of funds (Johnston, 72-73). The need for the inclusion of prior successes and the desire for a guaranteed success keep many scientists out of the running simply because they are young or are interested in something not previously tested.
To change this, the grant application must be reworked so that who you know and your age are not factors in the decision of whether or not to fund you. One possibility is eliminating those sections that would bias the grant readers against the author, such as lack of prior experience. Once that filter is eliminated, there should be quotas put in place by universities that encourages new forms of research, as advocated by Ted Cox of Princeton University. He argues that a shorter application could not only help a reviewer “remember what they’ve read,” but also help those who “can do original and interesting work” stand out (Ted Cox). Maria Leptin, a professor at the University of Cologne in Germany, similarly advocates reforms for the grant process. She supports the switch to making sure that applications “are judged purely on scientific merit by scientists, no political strings, no fake collaborations, no age limits.” By focusing on the idea rather than the scientist, we can ensure that actual progress is made and new innovations are developed. Although it is important that a university be able to profit somehow from safe research, it is also necessary for a certain proportion of their money to go to studies that can help society as a whole. If universities and companies set specific minimums for spending on riskier studies, we could be leaps and bounds past where we are now in terms of scientific exploration and discovery. This would eliminate the fear of reviewers and others in the hierarchy that allowing risky studies to occur would harm their careers. By taking away that fear, decisions will be fairer.
While it goes beyond the scope of normal everyday conversation to speak to others about the problems with the scientific hierarchy that are plaguing the advancement of humankind, it is important that we bring attention to these issues. As an individual, you may not be directly impacted by every study that becomes funded due to a change in the way the system works, but over time, these studies can lead to knowledge that will change the world. Whether it is new medicine, new technology, or new methods, science changes lives. The way research is being conducted now, though, keeps us at a standstill developmentally, which is an issue for a species that depends on adaptability for survival. Pressure to change the workings of the hierarchy, such as eliminating incentives to reject risky grant proposals, will be instrumental in ensuring the progression of the human race.
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