Letter to the Ghost of Science Present

Scott Dougan
Writer’s Comment: Actually, I wrote this essay when I was supposed to be doing a completely different essay at 11:20 p.m. following ~5–6 cups of CoHo black coffee. I was loafing around in Shields Library, and at the time my interest in writing about the dangers of advertising scientific discoveries to the public (the Fleischmann-Pons cold-fusion snafu was the example we were given) ranked somewhere near zero—especially since I thought that we needed more, not less, crosstalk between the public and scientists. So, five pages of longhand and three hours later, I wrote most of the essay you now hold in your hands, and posted it on the forums of my genomics class to see if it provoked any reactions (it garnered one reply). However, I also wrote this essay because I think that much of science and technology, previously off-limits to anyone without a Ph.D., is on the cusp of breaking the ranks of specialized knowledge and becoming the province of the nonspecialist (a lot like when reading became mainstream in the late 18th- to early 19th-centuries of the Industrial Revolution). Just like broad-based literacy, broad-based scientific and technical expertise promises to change everything about life on planet Earth. We’re already seeing this kind of shift-to-the-mainstream in computer science, where languages like Python and Perl have made programming accessible to pretty much anyone. Unsurprisingly, open-source scripts and freeform collaboration (like Usenet, PerlMonks, and GNU) have proven central to this transformation. So will things go like my essay says? I’d like to think so, but we’ll have to wait and find out. I’ll see you guys on the other side.
—Scott Dougan
Instructor’s Comment: Scott is a lively, spirited student who truly enjoys learning. He isn’t afraid to give you his opinion or to seek advice. He has an engaging enthusiasm about him, often muttering “cool” under his breath every time he learns something unexpected. I think his personality is evident in his writing. The essay he wrote was not assigned. It was written in the “Off Topic” section of our class forum. Typical Scott Dougan. It doesn’t surprise me that Scott would win a writing award. He’s intelligent and passionate and writes that way. Keep an eye on this one in the future; he’s going to be fun to watch.
—Ian Korf, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology


It is unfortunate for the interests of physiological science, that it generally falls to the lot of men of vivid imaginations, and great powers of mind to become restive under the restraints of a tedious and routine mode of thinking, and to strike out into bold and original hypotheses to elucidate the operations of nature, or to account for the phenomena that are constantly submitted to their inspection . . . . New opinions or doctrines, whether true or false, will have admirers and followers, and will lead to practical results.

—William Beaumont, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, 1833.

Our present system of scientific inquiry, publishing, and communication-in-general has become a dinosaur, an antiquarian model that will prove (indeed, is already proving) among the least effective ways of sharing information/generating progress we have today. Our current (and, to our detriment, wildly popular) mode of Nature-style journal submission g appraisal g review g publication is inefficient and slow. It is now arguably our greatest inhibitor of free inquiry, and has kept alive a bastardized academic incentive scheme based on citation, tenure, and scientific prestige. Science’s emphasis has shifted from “Does it work?” to “Will my peers accept it?” We’re encouraging an overwrought popularity contest guaranteed to promote scientific and ideological monoculture (c.f. physics’ String Theory), and we’re hurting everything from scientific progress to national security/technological standing to undergraduate education. 

But let’s back up first. 

In the late 17th century Henry Oldenburg, a German theologian then serving as the Secretary of the Royal Society, laid the foundation for our current system by “[p]romising publication in the society’s Philosophical Transactions as well as the official support of the society if the author’s priority was brought into question” (On Being a Scientist, 1988, National Academies Press). In so doing, Oldenburg sought to stem scientific controversy (of the Newton/Leibniz–style who-invented-calculus dustup) and improve mankind’s capacity for sharing, organizing, and utilizing advances in understanding. 

The Philosophical Transactions created a networked community of scholars joined by a love of nature and a thirst for knowledge and progress. From 1662 up through the early 1990s, this model of knowledge-distribution was the undisputed heavyweight champion of informational dissemination and research-sharing.

Then the internet came along and changed everything. 

With the arrival of the world-wide web, H. sapiens shrank the world to the size of a Macintosh. Everything changed, and information-sharing became not a costly and hard-won privilege (as under the Oldenburg construct), but cheap, easy, disposable, and available to everyone. Overnight, the 17th-century model became superfluous and outdated, with the central bastion of the Published Community of Scientific Peers replaced by a nimbler decentralized network of individuals. 

Much as the paper-bound book and newspaper are now on their way out (to be replaced by electronic substitutes like Amazon’s Kindle), so too is the peer-reviewed prestige-and-tenure-oriented Scientific Periodical. The days of the journal are numbered, and this relic of inefficiency is fast being replaced by opensource publication sites like BioForge and Scitable and PLoS. 

To be sure, a small segment of the journal-publishing community will survive where reputation, peer-review, and conservative inquiry serve an actual purpose, such as in the fields of medicine and psychology, where the public is immediately impacted by scientists’ decisions and experiments. For everyone else, though, tomorrow’s world of scientific information-sharing will increasingly come to resemble the collaborative-filtering systems of Digg and StumbleUpon and Reddit, favoring fast communication, innovation, and clear thinking over citation-count and seniority.

As it stands today, though, the world of scientific publication represents a rare success of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; everyone publishes papers to be received, reviewed, selected-for, and commented-upon by a community at large, and everyone enjoys the marginal benefits of a selfless, collaborative, knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake system of investigation. This would actually work quite well if we didn’t at the same time create/support a feudal academic hierarchy whereby Principal Investigators and Graduate Advisors manage, guide, and ultimately decide the success-or-failure-of our future scientists. As any professor can tell you, this becomes a system of apprenticeship that takes years to wade through; those who succeed in it promulgate the system for the next generation of graduate students (“If I had to go through it so should you” kind of thinking), and those who fail become dentists. 

It’s a clever scheme, but our disaffected scientifically-inclined youth (myself, as you might guess, among them) have no desire to scale a tenure ladder whose ultimate reward is starting life at forty for $90,000 a year. Academic tenure, like Science/Nature-style journal publication, has its place, but only in supporting the type of highly-theoretical research that only academic institutions can support. Too much of today’s science is practicable, but remains untested, unexploited, and bound-up in the literature. 

The raw ambition of our undergraduate youth is the sort of factor that’s also shifting the meter of scientific progress from the paper to the patent. The overdogmatic baby-boomers now steering our various scientific fields won’t realize this, but the impatient youth do, and they intend to take full advantage of academia’s sluggishness and inefficacy. Why, the budding scientist will ask, work for slow-growth peer-based prestige when my ideas can reap immediate economic benefit? I think we’ll soon be seeing a scientific youth goaded far more by financial gain and potential for technological development than by the carrots of an academic pissing contest (as those who read Jorge Cham’s comic “Ph.D.” well know).

So the most important thing is, what does this mean for tomorrow? We can, as a matter of fact, expect a brighter future more hospitable to scientific inquiry and technological innovation than ever before. A Second Renaissance fueled by results-over-prestige science means that the first world will enjoy greater health, comfort, and convenience than at any time in history, and the second- and third-worlds will ride the first’s coattails to vastly higher standards of living. Cubicle-style corporate America (à la “The Office”) will be replaced by a more mobile workforce of independent contractors and consultants, whose services prove much cheaper and more efficient than the pension-and-benefits mode d’emploi we see today. How much money you earn will be based far less on how-well-you-follow-orders or what-your-seniority/tenure-is as how well you can innovate, communicate, and generate fresh insight and ideas. Google is already implementing a model similar to this, and it’s only a matter of time till the rest of American business catches up. 

Technology’s rapid development makes it easy to miss the deeper currents of change amidst the eddies of everyday affairs, which is why I hope this sheds a little light on the historically murky and overpolarized world of scientific communication. I think we’re on our way to a newer, better science of tomorrow, and I look forward to seeing you there. It should be a hell of a ride.