29 July 2005

Science is a doozy

I was channel surfing a couple of nights ago, and came across a show about Jay Leno’s discovery of a rare, vintage Duesenberg car (described by Leno himself here). Apparently, Duesenbergs were so opulent that the name was the origin of the term “doozy,” meaning extravagant. During the show, Leno was explaining the difference between early cars and those made now, and said, roughly, that it used to be that technology was expensive and labour was cheap. Now, technology is cheap and labour is expansive.

It occurred to me this morning that science is one of the few areas in the modern industrialized society where that isn’t true. The production of scientific “product” (data) is generated by expensive technology and cheap labour. Even standard pieces of equipment will often cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most actual research is physically carried out by graduate students, whose pay sucks. Because of that, I’ve read articles calling successful scientists modern “plantation barons.”

The most successful areas of biology right now are arguably cell and molecular biology, and I don’t think it’s any accident that those are areas where the most automation has occurred. I’ve talked before about robots that can run experiments, for instance. I wonder if other areas of biology can catch up. In my own area, neurophysiology, the task of placing electrodes and getting recordings is sufficiently delicate that automating data collection seems a long way off. Automating data analysis, however, is more feasible. And I worry about whether those areas of science that have the luck of being more automated are going to out-compete those kinds of science that aren’t able to do so. Er. Perhaps I should say more than they're already out competing those non-automated sciences.

Of course, making that transition in the manufacturing industry (particularly the automotive industry) was not easy. I remember a lot of grief kid over massive layoffs and job becoming obsolete. Perhaps one good thing is that because the cheap labour in science is driven by short-term labour (students), rather than people who were counting on a particular industry to provide a livelihood for decades.

Photo by Roman Boad on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

No comments: