Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In the Future...

As common wisdom would have it, predictions can be very difficult – especially about the future. But could they also be harmful? The cover story of The Scientist Magazine looks into the practice of predictions in the realm of science, and whether there is a danger (to research, policy, or science's reputation) in promising too soon. I admit I was a bit skeptical; I tend to think that scientific predictions are critical in gaining public support and engagement with science, and if scientists don't make the predictions, someone else surely will! But as this article makes clear, there are limits and responsibilities that come with any promise. Here are a few pieces of advice from the experts:
When asked how long it might take for your research to translate into therapies, try to communicate the complexities of the process rather than make a specific prediction. “I’ve come to recognize that these things take even longer than you hope,” says Ian Wilmut. So what would he say if asked about the prospects of tackling motor neuron disease with the iPS system? “I would say, one or two labs have now got nerve cells which are the genuine equivalent of those in a person who inherited the disease; it will perhaps take a couple of years before they have identified the molecular differences between them and healthy cells; it might take a couple of years after that to set up a high-throughput assay; a couple more years after that to run that and identify the first compounds. Which of course then simply gets you to the point where you have to put drugs through animal tests before you can get to patients. So, it’s likely to be at least ten years before there is the possibility of a new drug being used on any scale to treat human patients.”

According to Nik Brown, just heeding the lessons of past predictions and promises—both the successes and the failures—can help scientists avoid what he calls “institutional amnesia,” in which they deliver serial disappointments.

Harold Varmus’s gene therapy report concluded that scientists need to “inform the public about not only the extraordinary promise of gene therapy, but also its current limitations.” It might not be easy when the scientific culture encourages promise-making and hyperbole, but for Brian Wynne, science and scientists need to be more modest about their claims. “If modesty were institutional, politics and science would be completely transformed.” Adds Brown: “A more modest science would probably also be a more reliable science.”

“Scientists know about science, at least their own subdisciplines,” says Dan Sarewitz, “but they often know a lot less about technology and innovation and political context, so it’s not very surprising that they’re often wrong in their predictions.” Hilary Rose says that natural scientists are sometimes inclined to think of complex human social and political behavior in biological terms, which can introduce further error. A problem for ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in The Population Bomb, for example, was that “he did not know enough about demography,” she says. 

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