Thursday, 14 May 2009

Scientific experiment confirms what most people thought, a few scientists quite pleased

By Ann Bruce, Innogen Research Fellow

The social science community often critiques life scientists for over-promising what their work will deliver. This was a strong theme from a recent stem cell conference, ‘Beyond Pattison’.

But what can we really expect life scientists to do?

They are expected to produce academically “excellent science” and to justify the relevance and value of this to publics – who are, after all, funding the research.

No wonder then that the life scientists might talk about their research in terms of potential therapies for say, multiple sclerosis rather than say, understanding how a particular signalling factor is determining whether a cell differentiates or not. No doubt there are occasions when individual scientists over-state their case or when newspaper headlines promise unrealistic cures but I for one am not surprised that natural scientists justify their research, which may be a long-way from producing applications, in terms of cures. We as a society have asked them to do so.

The question surely is not whether life scientists sometimes apparently promise one thing and deliver something else but when does this matter?

As a society we demand that scientists tell us why they are doing the research but we should not do this naively. Instead we need to do this with our eyes open to the myriad possibilities that could arise from the research and the complexity and timescale of the process needed to move from research finding to clinical treatment.

1 comment:

Theo Papaioannou said...

In a recent article entitled 'Will genomics erode public health and prevention? A senario of unintended consequences in the Netherlands (Science and Public Policy, 36 (3) April 2009) Tilo Propp and Ellen H M Moors argue that '...expectations are not only communicated as forms of anticipation of the future, but also as a means to sustain policy-making interest in fundamental research that is still far from applications in therapies, and needs high investments' (p.200). In my view, this important link between scientific expecations and public policy should not be dismissed, especially in the area of genomics and biotechnology.