What happens when scientists go fishing?
They get in trouble with their peers. When scientists go on a fishing expedition it means they are having a look at unknown territory. Instead of following the now conventional research path of devising and testing hypotheses, they explore without having a clear idea of what they will uncover. That unstructured style is not currently in favor and when a scientific peer characterizes a colleague’s research proposal as a fishing expedition it is a damning assault.
Scientists need support for their research and money is in short supply. Research sponsors seeking to maximize value will gravitate to proposals that appear most likely to yield useful results. Often this means patents, disease treatments and other deliverable products of obvious utility. Without question the research and development enterprise produces enormous benefits.
Dwindling financial resources will force hard choices. These decisions will influence the direction of scientific discovery. Should scientists systematically squeeze out fishing expedition work and favor hypothesis-driven projects with defined lists of anticipated outcomes? This has actually been going on for some time, what happens if instead of a preference it becomes a general policy?
Thomas Levenson’s provocative essay, ‘Let’s Waste More Money on Science’ (1), questions the strict utilitarian philosophy toward research support. Offering specific examples, he warns us to be wary of linking research support with rigid demands for immediate payoffs. We may miss or delay some important discoveries for a very simple reason; we do not know everything. Hypothesis-driven research is immensely powerful and sharply limited at the same time. It’s only as good and visionary as our hypotheses.
A great example of how observations can take us somewhere amazing is the new world of genetic manipulation enabled by a tool known by the strange name, ‘CRISPR-Cas9’ (2). CRISPR stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,’ the unusual attribute of DNA structures observed in microbes that first drew the attention of scientists. It took a while to puzzle out that these odd DNA structures were the record-keeping part of a virus infection defense system. Cas is a ‘CRISPR-associated’ protein that will seize and cut DNA segments recorded in the CRISPR sequences. The importance of CRISPR-Cas9 today is that it can be re-programmed to allow scientists to modify DNA to eliminate some terrible genetic mutations and perhaps provide the routes to cures for other diseases. It is impossible to know how much CRISPR technology will change things other than to note it could change just about everything. This is not the first time just following curiosity as to how bacteria defend themselves from viruses yielded entirely unpredictable and world-changing results. Werner Arber, Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathans received a Nobel prize for the discovery of restriction endonucleases, enzymes used by bacteria to destroy invading viruses. Restriction nucleases provided the means to create recombinant DNA which revolutionized the biological sciences and biotechnology.
A great deal of the monetary support for scientific research comes from public sources funded by taxpayers. The scientific community is facing political uncertainty and probable retrenchment of resources. While accountability is essential and striving toward practical goals critical, I hope the scientific community will find ways to support some work that falls outside the rigid boundaries of the hypothesis-driven model.
Sometimes it is a good idea to allow scientists the opportunity to do a little fishing.
(1) Thomas Levenson. Let’s Waste More Money on Science. The Boston Globe, 11 December 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/12/11/let-waste-more-money-science/afvbusk8G5T5IcrgldkmJJ/story.html
(2) Nature has a special collection of articles on CRISPR available here – http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-1.17547