Saturday, January 27, 2007
A brilliant young scientist draws my attention to the Journal of Negative Results on Biomedicine. So, for example, suppose you knock out a gene in a mouse - a very common procedure - in the hope that this will make it blue-eyed, blond, bi-polar, a Daily Express reader, immortal or whatever. If none of these things happen, then you have a negative result. Unfortunately, my friend tells me, fewer and fewer of these negative results are being published. For reasons of pride, ensuring the flow of grant money or of editorial policy in the journals, scientists are not reporting failure. PhD students, therefore, might spend three years of their life conducting an investigation that has already been proved fruitless at some other lab. If this is true and if it is happening on a large scale, then the implications for science are ominous. As more and more people replicate work already done elsewhere, progress will become a slow crawl, not a headlong rush, into the future. It might have already stopped and this is, scientifically speaking, as good as it gets. One can admire the journal's game attempt to put things right, but, somehow, I find the thought of thousands of scientists pursuing tasks of zen-like futility strangely consoling.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:07 am