This blog is a place where I will translate interesting findings in biomedical and basic science research from scientific jargon to plain old English. The bottom line: You don't need a PhD to understand science!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Politicizing Science: A Lesson from Shrimp on Treadmills

OK, I’ve procrastinated long enough getting this blog up and going again. Before I jump back into writing about the goings-on in bioscience research, I want to spend a few minutes writing about a very disturbing issue that I recently encountered.

A good friend of mine was over for dinner a few nights ago, and during our normal discourse of politics, religion—you know, all those things you’re not supposed to talk about—he asked if I’d heard about the $500,000 of NSF funding going toward making shrimp run on treadmills. Given that I have a five-month-old baby at home and don’t have time to shower let alone check up on the list of NSF funding recipients, I hadn’t.

Now, when someone tells a scientist who spent most of her scientific career dissecting the brains out of fruit flies or running experiments on inch-long Zebrafish, it comes at no surprise to me that a lab might want to use shrimp as a model system to test a hypothesis that would be very difficult to explore in a human or other mammalian species.

So, I reminded my friend that one of the latest Nobel prizes in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a scientist who essentially studied pond scum (Google Elizabeth Blackburn if you’re interested) and to take any hyped news about shrimp on treadmills with a grain of salt. For what it’s worth, I explained to him, the NSF has a very competitive application process to receive funding.

The next day, out of curiosity, I decided to Google this “shrimp on treadmill” business, and oh what fun I had! If you ever want to get your blood boiling on a Saturday morning, start reading the statements of Senator Tom Coburn, who believes that any money spent on making crustacean exercise equipment could not possibly end in something useful to society (again, let me remind you that even the most groundbreaking discoveries can start with pond scum). BUT the thing that most irked me was the slanted take on the story by some of the news media, regurgitating Coburn’s arguments without any investigation into the actual research being conducted using shrimp on treadmills.

Well Senator, you’re wrong. And here’s why:

Dr. David Scholnick at the Pacific University Oregon states on his lab’s website that his shrimp treadmills are part of a large study “to better understanding how pathogens can impact respiration and thereby disrupt metabolic pathways during activity.” These types of studies can lead to a better understanding of the health parameters of our marine life as well as provide a direction for future studies about the effects of infection in humans.

There is a danger that resides in the act of politicizing science—stripping science down to a current day dollar value. Let’s not forget that most, if not all, modern day technology was once a box of scattered wires or a petri dish of bacteria. The benefits (both socially and monetarily) that can arise from basic science research, whether the experiments are run on shrimp, flies, or mice, are unpredictable.

Of course it is important for tax dollars to be put to a good use, but how can a society responsibly vote for representatives who will make good financial decisions if society is misinformed and mislead? Sure, out of context it might sounds silly to study shrimp on treadmills, but in context, shrimp are a small, cheap, and efficient model system to study a number of biological processes. When our politicians, and especially our media, take sensationalized views on science, focusing on very small aspects of large studies, it is a disservice to our society.

The bottom line - If basic science continues to get politicized as it is, we, as a nation, run the risk of losing support for our most basic, and sometimes most groundbreaking, aspect of science: The ability for a bright mind to follow a creative line of questioning, leading to informative and often surprising results.

1 comment:

  1. Comment from a friend on facebook:
    interesting post. although if your point is to say that science shouldn't be politicized, the NSF shouldn't exist at all since it is a government body and is inherently political.

    My response:
    I think there is a difference between politicizing science and federalizing some of our scientific research. In my mind, politicizing science is taking some aspect of a scientific out of context to further one's own agenda or goals. Coburn did this by talking only about the surface of a research project, rather than the why certain methods were used and what the study's overall aim was, to further his goal of the public seeing government waste. This can lead to a misunderstanding about these types of projects among the general public who take Coburn at his word. I do think that federalizing some scientific study is necessary. Even with as many non-profit organizations as there are, it would be very hard to fund all of our basic science research without some federal money. Private industry would simply not be as willing to pump so much money into basic science considering the short term payoff is--well, is nonexistent for the most part. So, while government is of course inherently political, my use of the term "politicizing science" is a little more along the lines of spinning science into something it's not for personal gain.