06
Jan
10

Criticism of genetics research continues

I’ve posted a couple of times about how the big genetics research explosion during the ’00s has produced a backlash of criticism that the practical results of the big bucks spent of the enterprise have not matched the investment. That theme continues with an article in the Times Online yesterday. Another group of  British and American researchers are basically saying the juice isn’t worth the squeezing.

In biomedical scientific research there’s always a basic tension: 1) spend the money on basic biological research to clear up the many remaining mysteries of living things, or 2) spend it on the most direct applied research to get to specific medical benefits sooner. Basic research is often the long way around in science. It takes longer and doesn’t get to treatments as quickly, but when you get there you’ve got a better picture of biological processes which may have unexpected benefits in other medical areas. The quick results route — as directly as possible from A to B — may get there or it may get waylaid because some basic biology piece is missing. Most funders of medical research hedge their bets by spreading research dollars around in both strategies.

It troubles me when I see one group of scientists devaluing the work of another. When I hear “it’s not worth the money” I often interpret that to mean: “Please, please fund MY research!” or “I told you so!”

Science can be a pretty rough-and-tumble business. Because scientists generally have big vocabularies the verbal blows aren’t as crude as you’d hear on, say, the old Jerry Springer show. But the insults are there.

Also, to call for pulling the plug on genetics research at this point tends to violate a basic principle of science: if you don’t get the results you were expecting with some approach, an even more important question comes up: Why? Ever since the Human Genome Project reached its preliminary results in 2000 a bunch of thorny questions have come up. Why are there so few genes (~30,000-40,000) in the human genome, and how do we get our magnificent selves from so few? What’s with all  this “junk” DNA anyway? Why aren’t there a few glaringly prominent genetic clinkers in common diseases like cancer instead of a bunch of genetic flags whose roles are really hard to sort out?

I don’t have the answers, of course, but there are answers to these fundamental questions about our genes, and they’re important. We’re not going to master the frailties that befall us without answers.

As I’ve said before, it’s too bad that nature isn’t simple. If it were, it would be a lot easier to solve problems that vex us. But, whether it’s biology or physics, deep complexity is a basic feature of reality, and we have little choice but to doggedly track  it down. And, isn’t that something that keeps life interesting anyway?

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