Friday, July 01, 2005

Science FAQ

As part of Science magazine's 125th anniversary, they have a [free] news feature that is going to be looking at the "125 big questions that face scientific inquiry over the next quarter century". The top 25 questions are up, together with short essays on each of them. What struck me most about the questions is that only about 10 of them are in the non-biological sciences, like chemistry, physics, astronomy and geology etc; the rest are all questions about biology. That's a huge preponderance of biological questions, relative to the other sciences.

I wonder whether that's due to the fact that many other sciences may have reached the "good enough/don't care" state, as in "Our knowledge here is good enough that the average person doesn't care about most of the research going on in it". My impression is that it's a lot easier to convince a random person you meet on the street that research in aging/immunology/consciousness/just about anything in biology is important than it is to convince them of the importance of research in physics, or astronomy etc [even if that's only because biologists can always pull out the "... and this could lead us towards a cure for cancer/cellulite/your-favorite-disease-or-problem" argument on just about any research topic ...]. The immediate, every-day impact just isn't quite the same. While you may argue that research directions should not be determined by Joe Q. Public's desires [a sentiment I agree with, for the most part], I think it's inevitable that those desires will start to play a larger and larger role, especially as some sciences get to the point where it becomes harder and harder to articulate the practical benefits of their cutting-edge research. Ultimately, politicians control a lot of the purse strings, and since they're generally not scientists and need to satisfy their constituents, their viewpoint will have a lot in common with that of Joe Q. Public, leading to further pressure towards short-term/immediate-impact work.

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