Thursday, 7 January 2010

loose ends

Ten years ago or so, I attended the lecture of Sydney Brenner. And what a treat it was. He managed to keep the audience’s attention for an hour without showing a single slide or using any other prop. I remember his notion that bioinformatics is to theoretical biology as accountancy is to economics. I don’t think it went particularly well with that (sizeable) part of audience which was comprised of bioinformaticians. Including me. Ten or so years later, I tend to agree with Dr Brenner.

Loose Ends is a collection of columns written by Brenner for Current Biology between 1994 and 1997. I got this book as a gift, back in 1998. Apparently, it is out of print now, which is a shame. It should be made a compulsory reading for every biologist.

Molecular biology has been a great leveller and has made thinking unnecessary in many areas of modern biology. With the disappearance of theory has also come the decline of experimentation, and the practice of science by hypothesis and testing is not known by many students in the field. So powerful are contemporary tools for extracting answers from nature that pausing to think about the results, or asking how one might find out how cells really work, is likely to be seen as a source of irritating delay to the managerial classes, and could even endanger the career of the questioner.
(In Theory)
The best publication list I have ever seen was that of a candidate for some official post who was engaged in defence research. The two first papers were: Landing aeroplanes on aircraft carriers I & II, Restricted circulation. The remaining items, numbered 3 to 9, were labelled “Secret”. I would have been tempted to inflate the list of secret publications to 19.
(Citation matters)
For better or for worse, some of Brenner’s predictions of nineties became reality in the noughties. Mostly for worse, I’m afraid.
Before we develop pseudoscience of citation analysis, we should remind ourselves that what matters absolutely is the scientific content of a paper and that nothing will substitute for either knowing it or reading it.
(Citation matters)
Nowadays, the said pseudoscience is flourishing.
I predict that very soon every grant application will have to include a strategic mission statement and a business plan, as well as an organogram outlining the structure of the laboratory with a clear definition of who reports to whom. Perhaps as time goes on and science gets more difficult to do, the actual research project will come to be a smaller part of the application. Eventually it may disappear all together. This would fulfil the ultimate dream of every manager and administrator, which is simply to have pure management with no content...
(A tiresome business)

1 comment:

  1. there is a certain beauty in concept of pure management, I must say. pure anything, really, including management :)