Misguided views of what is science

Jul 01 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Ivan Oransky tweeted:

which is a good thing, as the WSJ is not on my daily, or even weekly reading list.

The article  is full of the usual wide-eyed crap about what science is:

In a few years, running scientific lab experiments could be as simple as shopping online.

First, I am totally in favor of everyone doing science. I think we do it all day long. I think all small children are artists and scientists (being curious and expressing that curiosity) until it gets beaten out of them, or they are told that they can't do it.

Second, I am always in favor of streamlining, making more efficient and reducing the energy into the ugly repetitive mind-numbing steps that are necessary to get data.

On the other hand, it is exactly that doing these steps, that understanding these parts (even if one, as a PI, doesn't do them oneself) that often makes a difference in the final outcome. In my work, I do a lot of very grueling surgery to get chronic recording electrodes in the right place. I love it when the trainees get it right, and do it well, and I don't have to. But each new batch (and sometimes its a batch, and not one new person being trained by the old) needs to learn how. If I can't do it, I can't teach it, and they won't learn it.

If that work was sent out (please take one animal, put electrodes in these 16 muscles, around these 5 nerves, and oh by the way make sure you don't cut the Vagus) how could I teach anyone to it? And what happens when the surgery/nerve identification company goes bankrupt? What if we have deadlines (SfN, grant submission, trainee job talks) and no IACUC protocol in place to get that last little bit of necessary data?

But I don't think that is even the most serious issue. So much of what I've learned about the science is from making huge mistakes in doing the boring things, the little things. I know the anatomy in detail because I've sweated over 25 years of surgery. I can defend my animal model to NIH because I know exactly how close the anatomy is, and I know exactly where it is different. I get my ideas from knowing the basics stone cold. It's (one reason) why I step back and let the peeps do the surgeries, collect the data and fuck up time and time again. Yup it takes longer. No, I will never be a glamour lab. But they are learning. And lo and behold, they learn something I missed.

The bottom line for me: science is in the doing. Yes as you get older, you don't do everything in your lab, and you may not know how to do everything, and it is more efficient to let the lab do stuff. The WSJ article outlines the logical extension of that philosophy. It will make it easier to be a flash scientist if you can skip the boring steps. But the real cool stuff can still be found in those details.



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