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The next big thing
We come to end of another year and another administration. I’m thinking change as did many voters in this election year. When I began to play in the global life-sciences business in the 70s, the telex machine (teleprinter or teletypewriter) was king, an electromechanical wonder that chattered and rattled to call us to attention. Variants of these wondrous devices were popular for punching yellow paper tape to program minicomputers. An input/output device of the most primitive sort—it was a mature device in my immaturity, having been introduced in the 1930s.
It was a joy to come to the office each morning and unroll the paper, hoping for orders from Hong Kong or Frankfurt, but please no service problems from Australia.
Fax, and then Fedex, came to the rescue. They were very costly and special, but accommodated graphics and even hand scribbles on hotel stationery in Bavaria. Within five years or so the bloom fell off and fax machines digested menus from local restaurants, frauds from Nigeria and the favorite fraud of all, invoices for fax paper that had never shipped.
The first email brought us back to the telex machine: words without graphics. The signal-to-noise ratio was at first high and very special. We’d get an email that said, “We just sent you a chromatogram by fax.” Then the pollution increased exponentially with access to the web and bandwidth to accommodate attachments. A decade later we were expected to network socially, although with more noise and jokes than substantive data. Video then fried more neurons and national human productivity sank, as robots took over. Now all this is in our pocket. Are we done yet? Can I rest?
These developments have impacted science in ambiguous ways. The rise of endless commercial journals and open-access publications that print nothing eats up our time. Much is published in a third (or even fourth tier) that is not well reviewed, and found to be irreproducible. Some even advocate making preprints widely available without review. Transmission costs now approach zero, paper is only used locally, postage is irrelevant and the human brain is not advancing. Could it perhaps be slipping from multitasking under the weight of Big Data? I recall when genomics was new and then proteomics, metabolomics, lipidomics and more. They all were the next big thing. They became easier (to do) and harder (as the unknown unknowns became known).
Today the lower friction to get data has outrun the ability to interpret it or even properly repeat it. What to do? Invent complex data sets, hoping that enough of it will result in enlightenment, even with much of the data being junk? Is the microbiome getting old too fast? CRISPR too? Optogenetics? But we haven’t finished riding the earlier omics waves which thus far benefit very few patients. I see a parallels with an open-access press. There truth has been sacrificed to the priority of supporting a political narrative. Even worse, it appears the same has happened in science, with so many press releases publicizing biomarkers far from clinical validation and drug targets unproven to be either safe or effective (i.e. druggable).
The public press is beginning to wonder about science-by-tweet in parallel with what they see as corruption in drug pricing, confirmation bias in clinical trials and even, in a few cases, creating diseases to fit drugs at hand. The influence of low friction communications on human culture is now a legitimate topic of scientific study. What is the impact on our mental health, our productivity, our politics, our science reporting, our civility and our respect for each other? It’s early, but it’s not looking good.
Can we please stop hyping STEM and associated higher education, while neglecting (effectively disparaging) those who do most of the work and provide most of the votes? I’d recommend a return to conservative arts (known to some as liberal arts) where the truth is again respected, debate is welcomed, common values are noted and science can be reproduced and is based on valid data. In other words, can we make America ambiguous again? An indication of a first-rate intellect is the ability to keep two opposing thoughts in mind simultaneously (Thank you F. Scott Fitzgerald). This we need to be able to do.
I’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle and it will continue to be challenging to pick signals out of the noise in so many poorly controlled communications channels. We must try. There is very little in the life sciences that is not ambiguous. The public should know the truth that magic bullets remain a fantasy from an opera. We do make incremental progress, but must be more patient. Meanwhile, the telex machine and TWX network rest quietly in peace. Or do they?