Wednesday, 8 December 2010

"Public" Reviews of Science: Arsenic and Old Congressmen

Are there enough jokes that can be made with arsenic? No.
Two topics in the news recently have really caught my attention. The first being the "discovery" of the microbe that utilises arsenic in it's development instead of phosphorous. The second being a project called "YouCut" being run by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor which is currently soliciting a public review of NSF grants. When is it appropriate for the public to comment on scientific findings? Obvious answer: if you are a scientist. That's the summary... discussion below.

Unless you happen to be a bacteria living in an arsenic-riddled lake in California, it is unlikely that you missed this. There are fantastic responses and discussions going on that have certainly stolen my attention span over the last few days.

The first being the eloquent and professional (as professional as a blog can get) rebuttal by Rosie Redfield at her blog RRResearch. Though my knowledge of micro-biology stops at the freshmen university level, anyone with an understanding of the scientific method and research practises will find her comments interesting and insightful.

Alex Bradley added an interesting scientific contribution about arsenic compounds' propensity to fall apart when immersed in water. He guest-posted on the Science Blog "We, Beasties" with an interesting, well-presented argument.

I read Carl Zimmer's rebuttal posted on Slate and also found it to be well-written, insightful and worth reading.

There is discussion and speculation about the hype that NASA concocted in the lead-up to the publication. I, personally, felt mislead by the lauding as an astrobiological find. Frankly, this has nothing to do with astrobiology, but instead has implications on the field. This is all very interesting and I really cannot add anything any more eloquent than what has already been stated.

NASA refuses to comment on the web-based criticisms and says that this sort of critique should be conducted in professional publications. No one is arguing with that, and Dr Redfield is forming her blog post into a formal letter for Science.

This arsenic debacle has showed that opening up research to the "public" can lead to thoughtful criticisms and critiques of scientific practices. However, the "public" who are insightfully leading the charge against the "finding" of microbes hopped up on arsenic happen to be well-educated scientists. These people may not be an expert in this particular field, but they understand the basics as well as the importance of good research practices. Through their experiences in laboratories, they are able to spot flawed findings and isolate issues.

This, however, ties to the new project in the US Congress where Eric Cantor (R) is launching his new "YouCut" Campaign. The first objective of this project is to review National Science Foundation grants and isolate projects deemed to be "wasteful". Oh, wait, here's the catch, anyone can take part in this project. Anyone. Go there yourself; you can submit the grant numbers of projects you think are a waste of time.

There is a gigantic smear campaign against science in America. Scientists are lauded as the "bad guys" because we give evidence for scary things, like climate change, solar flares, asteroids, diseases. There is also a (unsurprising) correlation between atheists and scientists due to our need for evidence and rational thought. The conservatives christians do not like that. No sir.

This just opens the floodgates for the conservative anti-scientists to have a voice in a field where they do not belong. They do not conduct scientific research and are unlikely to see the broader impact that projects may have.

There is no form for people like me to go and say which projects should get more money. Probably right, too, as that would turn into an all out war between research groups, PhD students, post-docs and departments trying to flood the interwebs to get more money. Projects like this are a waste of internet space (if such a thing is possible) and definitely a waste of congress.

Leave science to the scientists.

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