Friday, December 03, 2010

The Great Dilemma of the Life Sciences

It is an excerpt from the chapter, "The Great Dilema of The Life Sciences", in the book, "Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature" by famous biologist, Erwin Chargaff. The book was published in 1978 by Rockefeller University Press, New York. Hope you will enjoy reading it, in the context of today's research scenario. I enjoyed reading it and feel like sharing with others. 

One man or two may decide to study a certain beetle. Whether they do this because the animal is pest or biological delight is immaterial. If they find something of scientific interest, there will soon be ten others and more who will do the same. Once there are a hundred men studying the beetle, they will form a society and publish a journal. A society creates a profession, and a profession cannot be permitted to die. It is upto the nation to support it. If the nation can be persuaded, there will soon be a thousand members of the society for the study of the beetle. It is obvious at this stage the beetle can no longer become extinct, for what would all these experts do who may well outnumber the beetle? Then a foundation will arise whose lay members- influential bankers, society ladies- will neither know nor care whether their function is to help with the eradication or preservation of the beetle. They know one thing: they must support those who study the beetle. There may even be a Beetle Ball.

Professional scientists have, by necessity, limited vision. I always tried not to be professional scientist, since I dislike professional professionals. What I used to call "human beings" are becoming rarer as I look around. Not so long ago, St. Augustine would say: "the heart speaks to the heart". But now computer talks to computer. Most people I meet in my or other universities seem to be rejects of IBM. They are really the narrowest, the dullest kinds of experts or specialists; they are essentially molecular podiatrists: people who know all about the fifteenth foot of the centipede.

When you spend your life watching a bubble chamber or running cesium chloride gradient, you may become an expert bubbler or gradient runner, but there is little likelihood of your thus acquiring much wisdom. There is, in fact, a good chance that such people will turn into a very dull fellow indeed, wasting their lives by trying to outrun ten other dull fellows with whom they are in competition.

How is science done in our days? Here I must immediately make a distinction between science as a profession and science as the expression of some of the faculties of the human mind. The two are not necessarily connected. When someone tells me "I am a professional scientist," it does not automatically mean that he is a scientist. The distinction I am suggesting here has nothing to do directly with the question of talent. There have always been more or less gifted scientists, and there were even a few, very few, scientific geniuses. But what I want to bring out is that as a profession science is one of the most recent ones. It barely existed when I began my studies. Perhaps the exception is chemistry, where, when you called yourself a professional chemist, people would assume that you worked in the chemical industry. This was about the only mass outlet for academically trained scientists. It was not an accident that, when the science departments of the universities began to swell and to expand, it was always the chemistry department that led the way; just as the first modern teaching and research laboratory at a university was Liebig's chemistry laboratory in Giessen.

Otherwise, one entered a career in science, just as in history or philosophy, by trying to become a teacher at a college or even a high school. There were very few jobs, and almost none that paid enough to live on, except for the position of the professor himself. And there was usually only one professor for a discipline. Hence the old students' saying that there were only two ways to make a university career: per anum or per vaginam. You tried to become the professor's darling or you married his daughter. Obviously, this limited the choice: some professors were very nasty, some daughters were very ugly. Girl students were altogether out of luck, but there were only a few of them.

You may conclude - and you are right - that this was a most unpleasant system. But it had one advantage: it acted as a sieve, letting through the few who could not do otherwise. By requiring what amounted to a pledge to poverty, it kept out all those who, to use a nasty term, were not "highly motivated." It produced a slightly smaller number, but probably a much higher density, of good scientists than does the present system.

I should by no means wish to give the impression that I am in favor of the old system. It was abominable. Nor am I, on the other hand, in agreement with the way things are done now; for I am convinced that with our methods of organizing and supporting it we are effectively killing science. We are destroying the whole concept of science, as it had developed over the centuries.

This may sound to you awfully apocalyptic, and I ought to clarify it a little. I shall try to do this under four headings: What has science done to the universities? What have the universities done to science? What has science done to the country? What has the country done to science?

All these interactions have to do with science as a profession. But you will remember that I have made a distinction between this aspect and that of science as a product of the human mind. In this respect - namely, as the search for truth about nature - science began as a branch of philosophy, and for me this connection has never broken off. Science is an admirable product of human reasoning, as admirable and astonishing as are music or poetry or the arts. Previous generations understood this very well. For instance, I am a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, until recently, before Columbia sent me down for recycling, I belonged to their Graduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

As a mental occupation, as a product of the human mind, science does not operate on a time scale. Just as nobody could have told Mozart how many operas he ought to write, there can be no five-year plan for science. It comes as it comes, it goes as it goes. Should all melting points be raised by 10 percent; are six laws of thermodynamics better than three? But when America decided to go into science in a big way - and this really took place only within the last thirty or forty years - it went into it in a crazy fashion. This country has always had the tendency to blow up every balloon until it bursts, and it has done it also with science.

What science has done to the universities is that it has inflated and disfigured them; it has left them more bankrupt than they were before. The large private universities have been turned into huge corporations whose only business is to lose money. There are exceptions, but, in general, power-hungry, empty-headed money grabbers have taken over. The true and only function of a university, namely, to help young people find themselves by bringing to them the accumulated memory of mankind, has been swept aside. By misunderstanding, through overemphasis, of the old adage of the unity of research and learning, research has been made into a teaching tool, into a most expensive and stultifying one, forcing every student to become a researcher and trivializing the purpose of scientific research. Thousands of meaningless and costly experiments are performed to persuade the young that water boils at 100 degrees (Celcius). We are now paying the price for excessive veneration of the value of inductive reasoning.

Now to my second question: What have the universities done to science? They have bled it for overhead; they have cheapened and vulgarized it to the point of nonrecognition; they have made it into a public-relations "gimmick." If the products of this kind of education often still are so good, it testifies only to the resilience of young minds. But many are damaged irreversibly.

What has science done to the country? Obviously, a lot of good and a lot of evil. If the republic envisioned by Plato had come to pass, that is, a dictatorship of wise philosophers, may be no evil would have come to the state from science. But how many wise men will you meet in your future long lives? When I look at our leading statesmen, there are brought back to me the immortal words that the Duke of Wellington once spoke of his generals. "They may not frighten the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me!" The thoughtless, almost automatic use of science as the seed of technology has landed us in a fearful mess. The cry that what we need is more and ever more science has lost all persuasion, as far as I am concerned. The republic will not be saved by geese, not even by geese with a PhD.

What has the country done to science? In a way, I have already answered the question. When you have been a scientist all your life, going to the laboratory every day and spending all your days among other scientists, it becomes hard to imagine that there still are people in this country other than scientists, although an optimistic forecast made a few years ago promised me that in less than hundred years there would be more scientists than people in the United States. In any event, as I have already mentioned, the country at large views science with great diffidence and often with dislike; and the rain of suspicion falls alike on the guilty and on the just. I don't want to go into the tedious arguments about pollution and DDT and all the rest. I shall also not discuss whether ten million blackbirds ought to have been killed, by Tergitol or otherwise; nor shall I have anything to say about Napalm, that innocent pastime of a Harvard professor.

Our kind of science has become so dependent on public support that nobody seems to be able to do any research without a handout. If their applications are turned down, even the youngest and most vigorous assistant professors stop all work and spend the rest of their miserable days writing more applications. This continual turning off and on of the financial faucets produces Pavlovian effects and a general neurasthenia that are bound to damage science irreversibly. It would have been much better if it had never got so rich before getting so poor, for in the meantime many young people have been lured into a career that may never materialize.

P.S. Not much has changed- probably gone worse ever since.

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