07 March 2011

Peak science

We’re familiar with the idea of peak oil, peak fish, and other resource peaks. Some large, but finite resource, gets exploited to a point where either it gets too difficult to extract, or is drained faster than it can be renewed.

Could there be peak science?

Might there be a point where we can’t keep doing more science?

And could we already be past the peak?

• • • • •

At first glance, the notion that we’ve topped out our research, or that we could, seems completely absurd, particularly coming from a biologist. Biology has more interesting and worthwhile questions that are now potentially solvable than probably every before in history.

Researchers know that the results of one experiment often raise more questions than they answered. This makes the well seem boundless.

But perceptions can be dangerous. People used to say, “There’s plenty of fish in the sea” before fishery after fishery collapsed.

• • • • •

There are a lot of worrying signs.

  1. Declining support for public funding of science. Obviously, science isn’t alone in this regard. Budgets are poor for a lot of worthwhile endeavours.
  2. Administrative burdens. You need to go through a fairly complex approval process before you can even run some experiments. And once you have any sort of external funding, the accounting and effort certification is widely considered to be much more onerous than it used to be.
  3. Disenfranchised junior researchers. People who want to be scientists are facing long training at low pay and little stability. It’s not a healthy situation where senior scientists get compared to plantation owners and sweatshop operators. (Jenny Rohn published an opinion piece in Nature last week discussing this problem at the post-doc level.)
  4. Bigger questions means bigger equipment. Answering bigger questions often requires bigger infrastructure. For basic physics, can we get much larger than the Large Hadron Collider? Not for the near future, certainly.
  5. Energy constriction. And peak research might be more tied to peak oil than people like to think. Research doesn’t take just human energy, it takes physical energy. How many pipette tips and other plastics (which is often petroleum-based, remember) does an active biomedical lab go through in a week? Has anyone calculated the carbon footprint of active biological research labs?

Each one alone is a formidable problem. But combined, they might start to squeeze and constrict scientific output.

I am not convinced that research is a speculative bubble waiting to pop, like tulips or comics or housing paid for with sub-prime mortgages. I can more easily envision a slow, painful decline, as we’ve seen with other resource peaks.

• • • • •

If there is a peak, it will not be evenly distributed. Some research fields will buck these trends. For instance, I see a bright future for any research involving the internet and phones.

The internet and widespread mobile phone ownership means you can get huge, detailed data sets easily. And this is one area where these seems to be a healthy interest in research in the private sector. Just look at OK Trends. More than a few people have looked at their blog and said, “That could easily have been published in a proper peer-reviewed scientific journal.”

Citizen science and crowd sourced science is another place where I see lots of growth. If you can create research projects where people can contribute easily (and maybe have a bit of fun doing it), people are willing to help.

But many kinds of basic science don’t lend themselves to either that kind of automation or the distribution of workload. You can do studies, but it’s a lot harder to do experiments in these ways.

• • • • •

In some ways, I don’t believe my own arguments. Scientists often criticize business and governments about pursuing “business as usual” policies regarding energy despite overwhelming evidence that they are not sustainable.

Yet in reading commentary from researchers about these problem, particularly in the United States, the discussion almost always seems to center around grants from government agencies: business as usual. I’m struck by how few people have are proposing anything but “business as usual” policies: make sure the federal grants keep coming.

As scientists, it’s our job to come up with better ideas.

Photo by  Hamed Saber on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Eliza said...

I think I am confused. Are you stating that we are nearing an end to discoverable scientific principles or nearing an end of funding?

Zen said...

The latter -- although I was trying to say it's not just about funding. I'm thinking more about our capacity to do the experiments to answer scientific questions.

I'm not thinking the "end of science".

mark said...

As a working scientist who spent years in a dead-end postdoc in academia, then re-invented myself in biotech and made it back to academia, I pretty much agree with the concerns in this article. There are always good questions to ask,and always smart people interested in asking them. We are only at the beginning of understanding the human genome sequence for example. I agree that things are getting 'more difficult' for scientists in many ways, and foresee a gradual decline in scientific productivity from europe and north america, as a function of some other economic measures like per capita or per gdp or some such.