Reining in the rush hour

Some science progresses far too fast. Is it possible to make science slower — and is that even a good idea?

 
  Scientific conferences can be a rush.   University of Exeter/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific conferences can be a rush. University of Exeter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

This is an editorial for Issue 12 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan, who promises not to use this piece as a justification for slacking off during his PhD.

I’m sitting down to write this at an academic conference on the Gold Coast, SMBE 2016. Such meetings, along with journals, are considered the backbone of the scientific community, where researchers present their findings through talks and posters. They’re exhausting yet rewarding, with attendees often feeling like they’ve consumed far too much information for their own good over a very short period of time. 

It therefore, to me, feels quite appropriate that the theme of this month’s issue is Slow. At conferences, it’s often apparent at how quickly scientific progress moves: sometimes too fast, sometimes not fast enough. Some scientific problems can lay dormant for decades, nearly forgotten, while others can be swamped with attention and money, with new discoveries seemingly outstripping our ability to keep track of it all. Finding a comfortable middle ground can be tough. 

Rapid research output is particularly concerning in medical science. With real-world health problems to solve and people’s lives on the line, work in this field can be cutthroat and highly competitive, with labs being pushed for briefer and briefer breaks between publications. This makes it hard to reflect on research output, and it’s more than likely that interesting links between phenomena, where great discoveries are typically made, are being missed. Above all else, shortcuts and methodological errors can go unnoticed, making the quality of the research poorer — and who cares how quickly you get your science into the hands of doctors if it’s wrong and unusable?

The ethical and societal implications of such science also need to be considered thoughtfully, which can be hard to do when you’re rushing to publish your results before you get scooped by another lab. While negative press about the inherent dangers of technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology may be somewhat overblown, their risks and benefits need to be discussed properly. Human gene editing, in particular, may have serious social impacts if proper regulations and procedures aren’t put in place to shape how research progresses and how it makes its way into the hands of the public. 

In reaction to this frenzied pace of research, a growing collection of scientists have been calling for a “slow science movement,” wherein researchers are encouraged to take their time with their work, reflect on results, ask critical questions of themselves and others, and to just, in general, slow down a bit. It’s an attractive proposition, but unfortunately not yet a particularly realistic one. Scientists are given jobs and funding with the expectation of a particular level of output — and so they can’t slow down to any appreciable extent without a broad and systemic change in the way science is funded and approached as a career. 

Plus, as good as slow science sounds, fast science is not always bad. Crispr, an extremely promising new technique for genetic manipulation, has become explosively popular in labs the world over (including my own). In just four years, scientists have refined it to the point where it is starting to permit complex gene editing in basically any organism, something unthinkable just a decade ago. The pace of Crispr-based research is staggering, but as the technique’s results are easy to verify, this isn’t really a problem. Of course, some applications of Crispr, such as human gene editing, need to be discussed properly and deliberately. But when you’re working with fruit flies, like I am, there’s usually not a lot to worry about. 

Unfortunately, in some areas of science, urgency is justified. When it comes to climate change, the antibiotics crisis and potential epidemics like Ebola and Zika, research can’t wait for years or decades of deliberation. This is where the real Catch-22 lies: research needs to be swift, but also very accurate, as mistakes could be extremely dangerous. When we create new vaccines for a deadly disease, we want to make sure they doesn’t cause problems as bad or worse than the disease itself — but waiting around has a cost too. Careful attention, as well as proper governmental support, needs to be directed to these problems, so that scientists have the resources to deal with potential issues while research is pushed forward at a swift pace. 

That all being said, it’s probably not the place of a popular science magazine to dictate best practices to the scientific community. But speed in science isn’t limited by the work ethic of scientists per se (they all do a bang-up job, I think), but by the wider political and economic context in which science finds itself, and we can, at the very least, speak to that. 

The general public might sometimes be frustrated with the speed of scientific progress — promised “cures” never arriving, or lack of action on climate change — but often these are problems with the way science is treated in society. Bad science funding schemes cause rushed, unchecked results; a lack of economic and political support for certain areas of science and technology (climatology, renewable energy generation and basic research areas in biology, to name only a few) leads to stunted progress; and a distracted media landscape causes discoveries to be over-promised and under-delivered. 

Science should go at the pace it needs to go, and it shouldn’t be rushed. That varies from project to project, but a broader societal appreciation of science would go a long way towards evening out pacing issues.

We've got more talk about speed, and in particular slow things, in this issue of Lateral, so don't miss it.

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.