There is currently this cartoon circulating around in the global internet, showing Obama and a little boy in a restaurant, talking about the identity of the boys dad. Just by chance, I recognized that the US president and this little boy had ordered quite different types of food, with the little boy obviously just finishing a large supersize fastfood dish. I thought that there might have been a quite different conversation between the two.
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Since I did my master in Munich 3 years ago and now work on my PhD thesis I observe a trend in scientific research that worries me more and more. It seems to me that in the current research communities a devastating rush takes over to carry out large numbers of experiments as fast as possible and publishing their results before the initial findings could be carefully verified. On the other hand, there is the absurd tendency to start new projects, work on them in a very superficial way and finish them before anybody was able to go into depth and understand more global implications. A typical example are large whole-genome association studies, which generate endless data columns of genes with more-or-less clear links to human diseases. At the end, the usual conclusion derived from these studies is that "everything in biology is link with everything in life-science", virtually telling us nothing new. Before anybody could afford to take a complex physiological or pathological network apart and study a single biological mechanism in a defined model, the funding has usually expired and the scientific caravan went further, leaving behind only some empty water bottles and cold fire-places, but no documents to testify that the place where they erected their camp for some time was a good place and how much we have learned here. Gary Marcus wrote recently a text in The Newyorker where he explains that this not only is a very inefficient way of spending research funds, but that it even undermines the reputation of the entire research community. In Science and Its Sceptics he calls for
"... greater enthusiasm for those people who are willing to invest the time to try to sort the truth from hype and bring that to the public. Academic science does far too little to encourage such voices. "
But Marcus also defends the right of scientists to walk on unfortified roads, since the daily business of research is to go forward on a provisional area. This, however should not lead to a dismission of science altogether. But it is in my understanding like climbing a rock using a rope: you can go forward to the next fix-point maybe 5 meters, and when you fall you might fall 10 meters before the rope holds you. This is still acceptable, the perspective to get 5 meters higher justifies the risk fall 10 meters down and get some superficial scratches and bruises. If you risk to climb up 10 meters before fixing the rope on the next hook, however you risk to fall down 20 meters before the rope catches you, and this might cause fractures or other lesions that could become life threatening. In research, of course, it is not a matter of damaging your own physical health or your life, but to risk that a whole scientific project be put on the verge of destruction.
I am longing for the possibility to follow a single project into its depth, to discover and verify something really new and important.
For my colleague from Israel it was a matter of faith, when he warned me that going to the lab on a Saturday wont be favored by God. Yes I know, I said to him, but first of all I am an bloody atheist, and second this super-ambitious student in my group occupies the RealTime PCR machine every day of the week. So to check the results of my transfected cell cultures, I have to do it on the weekend. Moishe from Israel was just smiling, saying that in Israel nobody would trust any experiments which were done on a Saturday.
I ignored his remarks, and of course came here yesterday, when Moishe was sitting at home doing the Shabbat, avoiding to manually switching on any light or cooker, let alone a computer or anything else related with work.
I was happy to do a large batch of gene-expression measurements that nicely filled an entire 96well reaction plate. I also was happy to find a new batch of the qRT-PCR master-mix, from a company which just promoted their more reliable, more sophisticated, simply cooler enzyme and fluorescence formula. Everything went pretty smooth, and after pipetting the cDNAs and the primers and the master-mix I happily quitted the "Are you sure you want to start the run" button, locked the lab door and jumped on my bike to ride home.
Today when I came to collect and analyzed the results I immediately recognised something fishy had happened. The usually very smooth and nice ordered kinetic curves all looked like the footpathes of a crowd of drunken teens. They were jumping up and down on the diagram and simply did not made any sense at all.
So I thougth to consult the FAQ page of Agilent, the supplier of the new qRT-PCR kit I used first time on Shabbat. One question was "How much of the internal fluorescence dye standard should I add to the reaction" ? What they mean by "adding an internal fluorescence dye standard", usually all other kits we used before had this already pre-mixed. Only Agilent, for their own enigmatic reason, decided to ship it separately, and have it added by the customer himself.
The consequence of my insistence to work on the holy Saturday: I worked 2 hours for nothing, and I wasted the reagents for 96 reactions (at a price of 0,80 € per reaction plus consumables, i.e. about 100 € in total).
I promise I wont turn to any religious faith now, but maybe I try a little bit of Superstition.