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Academically Correct Biological Science

Steven Vogel

To What End, at What Cost?

Science without data is unimaginable, but data are not science. Equating the acquisition of data with the progress of science tacitly asserts that great generalizations must necessarily follow when sufficient data are amassed, surely an uncertain proposition. Certainly, though, gathering data along well-established lines is a particularly predictable activity. And activities with predictable costs and rates of progress will be favored by a very contract-like granting system. But a university must ask how an emphasis on data acquisition affects its intellectual climate, since it not only does science but also produces scientists.

The history of science tells us that few major conceptual advances were driven by anticipation of immediate utility. The achievements of great biologists such as Harvey, Darwin and Mendel were neither responsive to contemporary problems nor responsible for short-term therapeutic gain. Perhaps the advances in microbiology during the last half of the 19th century went hand in hand with improvements in medicine and public health, but the case is exceptional.

Ultimately practical benefit will come from fundamental biological progress, especially from progress in molecular biology. Less obviously, excessive focus by a university on therapy as a short-term goal is unhealthy: Too often resources will be concentrated on projects of lower fundamental importance and intellectual interest. At the least, such projects will have an illiberal influence on the education of undergraduates—they synonymize science and applied science when each has distinct value. However important technological progress may be, fostering an application-directed attitude undercuts a view of science as a component of culture and a way to understand the world. Ideas are the currency of my colleagues in the humanities; as a biological scientist am I supposed to be concerned instead with human therapy?

Especially pernicious are the self-serving attitudes that good science costs large amounts of money and that the quality of scientists—and science departments—can be judged by the funds they raise. Our history provides so little support for such views that to accept them is to claim that the basic conditions for scientific progress have changed in the past few decades, recently enough to forestall historical perspective.

Just what makes a project expensive? Equipment, unless it has a very short useful life, costs little. Similarly, supplies are rarely a major item in the overall research budget. What really uses money and generates that prized overhead are people—salaries, graduate assistantships and so forth. Thus equating good science with expensive science declares that science done with lots of technicians is meritorious, whereas science where investigators use their own hands is mediocre. What a peculiar criterion!

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