The internet, which now connects almost everything in the world, has changed every aspect of the way we live, work, and socialize. It has also changed the way we do science, particularly in facilitating the dissemination of research results, but also in enabling scientific discoveries in ways previously unheard of. Here are a few examples of how the internet has affected (and even effected) genetic research.
The National Science Foundation, which funds a lot of basic research at American colleges and universities, is facing a budget cut of $283 million this year, eliminating (up to) ~1,000 research grants. It's a shame because over the years many NSF-funded projects have resulted in discoveries that have turned into commercial products with significant benefits to society. Unfortunately, for people outside the scientific community, it's easy to overlook these impacts when trying to decide where to cut spending. Here are a few examples of why basic science deserves some respect.
The US government has announced it's going to fund a massive amount of brain research. The brain has been studied for a long time, but there have been some false starts such as phrenology. With modern science and technology, we might be able to understand a bit more about how brains work. Here are just a few tidbits on our gray matter.
The human body harbors many more microbial cells than human cells. There are at least 10,000 different types of organisms on (and in) a healthy person, and finding out how our bodies interact with these microbes could help us understand how diseases are transmitted (or perhaps created). It's a huge task to study trillions of cells, so some microbiome projects are turning to crowdfunding and citizen scientists to help out. Here are just a few interesting links on the nascent field of mapping our microbial friends.
Scientific publishing has been a lucrative industry in recent years, even though scientists have faced increasing competition over limited funding. The publish-or-perish academic model may be contributing to an increase in scientific fraud, but maybe the increased accessibility of digital journals is simply making it easier for honest mistakes to be caught. The scientific method is supposed to weed out incorrect conclusions, but there may be a lot of wasted effort as scientists try to replicate experiments that are just completely fictitious. It gets harder and harder to make decisions based on evidence -- if there is growing uncertainty that any evidence can be trusted....
Apparently, the UK is notorious for its bad science journalism. We're talking "labvertisements" -- industry/product-funded science stories about (possibly fake) studies conducted by questionable scientists with dubious methods. But at least they're honest about it and take their research with a huge grain of salt. The US just re-packages many of these reports as serious news. [url]
If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post.
The human genome contains an incredible amount of information that we are only starting to parse. Sequencing large amounts of DNA is getting cheaper and faster, so it's only a matter of time before we'll be able to collect a vast amount of genetic information and connect it with practical medical diagnoses and treatments. Here are just a few projects working on decoding our genetic blueprints.
Food science has come a long way and makes a lot of incredibly delicious foods that last longer and stay fresher and provide more vitamins/nutrients than previously thought possible. But just as any technology is a tool that can be used for either the benefit or to the detriment of humankind, there's also the dark side of modern food production that has produced some of the most unhealthy foods in history. Here are just a few examples of sketchy food stories that you might want to avoid.
Victoria University's Brent Alloway has organised a free public lecture on Homo floresiensis, a species closely related to humans which lived on Flores Island, but has been told he is not allowed to call the free public lecture 'The Other Hobbit'.
The volcanologist wrote to the estate of Hobbit author JRR Tolkein about the event on December 1 as a courtesy, but was told by Wellington lawyers AJ Park representing the estate that he was not allowed to use the word.
The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d.1859), printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland.
Since the book appeared in 1895, and Denham died in 1859, that would seem to place all of its text – and hence the creature known as a "hobbit" - in the public domain. I wonder what the Tolkien Estate will say to that?
There's an absolutely awesome comic by Jorge Cham of PhDComics (which you should read whether or not you're a PhD student) about the science news cycle, in which a nuanced scientific result showing a slight correlation is turned into a causal relationship by the press, leading to a flat out frenzy of others in the press who don't even bother to understand what the original research was about.
Click image to see full version
I'm reminded of this particular comic as the folks at On the Media point us to a story, told by Moran Cerf at The Moth (my favorite storytelling operation), about how, as a grad student, he got some research accepted for publication in Nature, the top of the top in terms of scientific journal prestige. His rather interesting research was about sticking electrodes in patients brains during brain surgery, having them think of certain things, and being able to have a projector project an image of what they were thinking. Cool, right? You can watch the video to see what happened once the press got hold of the story.
In case you can't watch the video, the short version is that Cerf had put together a short video about the research, and at the very, very, very end, when talking to a colleague about how this kind of research might advance in the future, the research mentions something about studying and recording dreams. Now, nothing in the actual research is about studying or recording dreams, but... the BBC picked up on this part of the story, and then everyone picked up on this part of the story, and things only got worse from there. And no matter what Cerf did, everyone was just focused on these claims about dream recording -- even to the point that director Chris Nolan asked him to come on tour in a discussion about the movie Inception.
It's a pretty good reminder that, especially when it comes to scientific research, you really shouldn't believe everything you read.
Oh, and as a random aside, while this story from Moran is entertaining, it does not come close in entertainment value to this other story that Cerf told at a different Moth event about his life as a bank robber. Seriously. No matter what you're doing today, find ten minutes to watch this next video:
The Olympic games publicize the physical achievements of athletes, but what about the notable achievements of scientists? It's somewhat hard to cheer for individuals working on fundamental research, but sometimes scientists get some well-deserved recognition. There are other prizes besides the Nobel, and here are just a few international awards for smart folks working on scientific endeavors.