Mathematics in everyday life

Can science become too big to fail?

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I recently had an interesting discussion with my colleagues Dan Graur and Ricardo Azevedo about their recent critique of the ENCODE project. If you have not read the article, I recommend it highly. I can guarantee that you will be entertained more than by almost any scientific article you’ve read in your life.

I believe that the authors make very good points here – they argue that the claims that 80% of the genome is functional (i.e. there is very little “junk DNA”) are unsupported by the data. A very interesting point is that the data was mined somewhat blindly. Evolutionary biologists who may have had a different perspective and interpretation were not consulted, for instance. I am not a specialist in these areas, and will leave this debate to others.  But the article, and the response it received raise a number of other questions.

How best to interpret the large amounts of data that are becoming available is a problem of tremendous importance. However, I wanted to address another question here. One of the main criticism of the paper by Graur, et al. is about the tone they chose to adopt. Some have deemed it too aggressive or disrespectful, or simply unbecoming of a scientific publication.

I know the people who wrote the paper well. I am certain they would not have written a controversial paper for the sake of controversy – they believe deeply and stand behind what they wrote. This was a small group of scientists in a good, but not super-famous department. They were calling into question the findings of a project that cost $200 million and involved over 400 scientists, or more. Earlier publications have questioned the results of the ENCODE project, but none have gotten the attention that the paper by Graur, et al. did – the snarky tone certainly caught people’s attention, and that was the point.

However, this also exposes a fundamental problem with Big Science. By definition, Big Science projects cost millions or even billions of dollars. They can fund hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists. Could such projects be too big to fail? If the projects do not achieve the desired results, will it be possible to admit so? Or suppose even that great new data is generated, and our knowledge is advanced by the project. But perhaps the results are not easily summarized in a headline or a soundbite. Perhaps they are complicated, not easily interpreted, or simply not definitive. However, if billions were spent, will there be a need to try to come up with headline worthy claims, and pronouncements that textbooks will have to be rewritten?

When so much money and so many careers are at stake, the rules under which science is done probably become different. To openly challenge such results becomes a questionable career move – it becomes likely that you have just made hundreds or thousands of enemies. If you have a disagreement with one or a few colleagues, that may not mean that your next grant will not get funded. But if you offended hundreds of them things may look different.

I don’t want to say that big scientific projects should not exist. Some such projects have been amazingly successful in the past – big science gave us the map of the human genome, and nuclear weapons (you can argue with the benefit to humanity, but not with the success), and Big Engineering landed people on the Moon. However, there is a political side of such projects that sets them apart. The goals of the projects will need to be carefully defined, and whenever possible, all steps of the project will need to be open to the entire scientific community.

In almost all cases, controversy is nothing to be afraid of in science. Controversy is frequently what drives science forward. If the result of Big Science is to tame or extinguish controversy, we should be worried indeed.

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