(I know this is 2 today, but this can’t wait. You all should read the article to which I refer)
A Perverted View of Impact (an editorial by Dr. Marc
Kirschner in the June 14 issue of Science)
Kirschner, the John Franklin Enders Professor and chair of Systems Biology at
Harvard Medical School, has written a particularly important editorial in the
newest edition of Science. The title is the one I used for this blog because I
could not possibly improve upon it.
point is a simple one and one to which I ascribe as well. You just don’t know
what research is going to be the most, and I hate this word, impactful. This
word does not exist in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th edition
that has been on my desk for over 15 years.
if you know how your research is going to turn out, why bother? We are supposed
to be asking questions the answers to which we do not know. But as Dr.
Kirschner points out, one of the outgrowths of a shortage of research dollars
is a push toward relevance, particularly as research applies to human
disease. As he says, “significant
science can only be viewed in the rearview mirror”.
concept of scientific investigation as true exploration into the unknown is
probably what got most of us hooked in the first place. Here at Anderson, we do
have a large component of our faculty investigators with a very grounded and
practical proclivity to their research. These are the translational and clinical
researchers whose work is aimed at impacting (there’s that word again) human
disease directly. This work is vital and a hallmark of MD Anderson for years.
there are more than sufficient examples of the greatest impact on human disease
coming from discoveries about as far afield from the clinic as one could
imagine. Polio vaccine, restriction enzymes and DNA sequencing are but a few.
Kirschner says that the words impact and significance should be banished from
the scientific vocabulary. I think that’s a bit over the top. There is room for
both fundamental work and work with direct application to human disease in any
academic center—even Harvard. What I do agree with him about is the
non-predictive nature of what so many of the faculty here do every day. And
that’s a good thing worthy of encouragement even if it does not fall
conveniently on a platform.
grading the value of the work based on its predictability (or someone’s ability
to spin its predictability in a grant application) may be an unwise way to
develop basic science here. It may appear orderly, but order may not be the
highest aspiration of good science.
isn’t that precisely what we have been doing with the influx of task-driven, external
scientific talent, the moon shots, IACS and the platforms? The big dollars are
really a high stakes bet that the leadership of MD Anderson, the Board of
Regents and the UT System know where the breakthroughs of tomorrow will come
from and have hired someone to implement this strategy.
believe that Dr. Kirschner might not be a big advocate of our research
is important to remember that we (and in my case I used to be) scientists have
a fiduciary relationship to the public. They let us play in laboratories
doing work we love in exchange for us maintaining the highest possible ethical
standards and to the most human extent possible eliminating bias. Dr. Kirschner
believes that this push to impactfulness (ugh!) is a fundamental error and
break with the traditional trust society has placed in academia. He calls it a “way
of asserting bias without being forced to defend it”. Right on Dr. Kirschner!
editorial is worthy of thought and discussion around the tables planning the
future of science at MD Anderson.