01 March 2012

A mountain is made of smaller stones

Earlier this week, I wrote about an article that claimed it’s too difficult to be a non-conforming researcher with new ideas because funding agencies are too conservative. I was gobsmacked that the author seemed to pick a case of HIV denial as an example of an “out of the box” idea that was worthy of pursuing rather than dismissing. This is doubly surprising when you consider that HIV research gives such a great example of the power of incremental research.

There is no cure for AIDS.

There is no vaccine for HIV.

But treatment has improved significantly.

I remember when nobody knew about AIDS. When I was in grad school, CBC Vancouver made the Dr. Peter Diaries, a series of documentaries of a physician who had AIDS. I remember how you could see his condition deteriorating as the diary progressed.

I’m sure that people in the HIV field (which I am not) can point to important papers in the development of those treatments. But from my point of view as an outsider, the overall pattern is one of a lot of researchers making many contributions. And it’s extraordinary to think that we’ve gone from a standing start to understanding and some degree of management in only part of an adult’s lifetime.

Naysayers are free to argue, of course, alternative histories where we gave money to non-conforming scientists with more daring ideas, and we’d have a cure, a vaccine, unlimited rice pudding, et cetera, et cetera. But this is speculative historical fiction, like, “What if Hitler won World War II?” It’s a fun hypothetical conversation, but it isn’t evidence.

External links

Academic: Slowing down the search for cures?
Are we playing too safe in cancer research?
Gapminder data on HIV deaths

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