In which Dr Aust ponders whether Simon Jenkins makes it up as he goes along
The other day I was listening to Simon Jenkins on the weekly Guardian science podcast, discussing his latest predictable tirade against the scientists, and the “Spoofjenks” reaction to it (my own little contribution is below/here).
In the podcast conversation with the Guardian’s Alok Jha (it starts at about 22 min 45 sec in, and goes on until 31:15 or so), Jenkins seemed to be backtracking somewhat on his latest article. As I heard it he was arguing that:
(i) what he had said was all very mild;
(ii) all he really wanted to say was that science could not expect to be shielded from the UK public sector cuts;
(iii) scientists “don’t know how to ask for money properly” (by which I think he means they overstate the importance, and likely benefit, of their work)
I don’t buy it, really.
First, I’m not sure that calling the President of the Royal Society (or things that the latter had said) “shameless” and “two-faced” is all that mild. And Jenkins’ central point (as he tells it) that he was merely commenting on scientists wanting to be protected from the public sector cuts seems rather disingenuous, given the well-worn nature of Jenkins’ theme (“pointy-headed scientific experts and why I distrust them”, if I may shorthand it that way)
Anyway, there were a couple of stand-out moments in the conversation (at least for me).
One was when Alok Jha offered, as an illustration of the way in which science projects can yield unexpected benefits, the example of CERN and the World Wide Web. Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was a contractor at CERN, and later a Fellow, when he came up with the ideas that launched the WWW. Now, this is not a justification of CERN, but it certainly is an illustration of what most scientists believe, namely that you can’t really predict with any accuracy where key advances will come from.
As far as I could tell, Jenkins’ response to this was to say that he doesn’t believe it. He did, to be fair, say some slightly less stupid things too. One was to suggest that the internet was an outgrowth of defence research. There is a fair amount of truth in this, as networking computers in remote locations together was certainly driven forward by projects like ARPANET. This later morphed into network projects involving Univerities and scientific institutions, like the BITNET system I was using to send e-mail in the late 80s and early 90s.
Jenkins’ other gambit was to say:
“Well, if the CERN people hadn’t done it, someone else would have”.
This latter is, of course, likely true of all human discoveries; but to offer that as a reason not to fund science and scientists strikes me as spectacularly stupid. Someone has to discover things. It hardly seems desperately controversial (not to me, anyway) to say that having some of your brightest people work at being “professional discoverers” is a good way to do it. What hard evidence there is available seems to bear this out.
It is also, I think, a good idea to have your professional discoverers work in a system where they talk to one another and disseminate, by publishing, what they have found, so that anyone else can make use of it. Many a human discovery has been made, and then lost or forgotten, and then had to be re-discovered. The scientific literature system now makes this a bit less likely.
What really struck me about this exchange was that Jenkins clearly didn’t know the slightest thing about what Berners-Lee had actually done, or even (slightly more surprising to me) the difference between the earlier computer networks and the WWW. Apart from Berners-Lee’s role being rather well known, anyone – e.g. anyone who writes recurring columns denouncing scientists for being a bunch of smug parasites – can go and read about it on Wikipedia under “History of the Internet”
Come back Homer Simpson – we need you as a well-paid columnist
However, the real “D’oh!” moment came when Jenkins started talking about what he saw as research that justified its costs, and research that didn’t. He contrasted research into Alzheimer’s Disease (which he said he thought led to real tangible advances in understanding the brain) with research into cancer, which he seemed to regard as a bottomless pit into which money was poured for no results.
Rather odd, I thought.
Because research into Alzheimer’s has, as yet, had little impact on the actual disease. That’s little as in “essentially none”. As Wikipedia puts it:
“There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; available treatments offer relatively small symptomatic benefit but remain palliative in nature.”
We do know a vast amount more about the underlying pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s, and the biology of Amyloid Precursor Protein, then we did a dozen years ago. But so far this greater knowledge has yielded no noticeable improvements in therapy. The cholinesterase inhibitor drugs that are on the market to treat Alzheimer’s are widely regarded as pretty useless, or close to it (pace Terry Pratchett), the experimental drug therapies have so far been a disappointment, and a commenter at the Guardian podcast page made the Pharma in-joke that:
“Alzheimer’s research has been such a failure that Pharma companies are actually cooperating with each other to try to make progress”
Now, personally I wouldn’t call the research a failure, exactly; as I said, we now know much more, but treatment breakthroughs have not been forthcoming. The same is true for Cystic Fibrosis, for instance. It is also true of Huntington’s Disease and many other neurological and neurodegenerative conditions.
Anyway, the sad reality is that we can do little currently in terms of preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s, and we certainly cannot cure it. The best advice seems to be to take a daily brisk walk, watch your blood pressure and lipid profile, and play chess or Sudoku to keep your brain active.
In contrast, if we talk about cancer, Jenkins’ other example, things are a bit different. You could have a look, for instance, at this.
Now, this improvement in cancer survival rates may not be mostly the result of what you think of as lab-based basic research. It may be more about painstaking clinical research to optimize drug regimes, or to refine procedures for surgery or bone-marrow transplant. It may be to do with better diagnostic techniques, like MRI and CT scanning, that allow earlier diagnosis and treatment and hence better outcomes. But of course, all those processes stand on the shoulders of basic research at some stage – and typically at multiple stages.
More importantly for the current discussion, the statistics - the real numbers – show that there are incremental year-on-year improvements in cancer survival. And if you cast the timescale back further, the gains are even more apparent, as you can see for childhood cancer here, from where I took this Figure:
Five year survival statistics for children diagnosed with the indicated cancers in the years 1962 to 1996.
Alzheimer’s – no improvement in treatment.
Cancer – year on year improvements. Slow but steady.
But Jenkins likes the first, where he thinks he sees recognisable benefits of research, and not the second.
Now, one can make a more complex argument about “value for the amount of money spent”, of course, and there is certainly a lot more money devoted to cancer research than to dementia research. But still, Jenkins’ comments seem completely… well… uninformed.
[Update: 12th July - Cancer Research UK have just released new figures showing that long term survival after a number of hitherto very deadly cancers has doubled since the 70s. Of course there are still some cancers where survival has not improved, like pancreatic cancer. But I doubt anyone would believe that less research is going to make that better. The figures are here.]
So – what would you conclude from Jenkins’ use of these examples?
Well, I am left concluding that what he thinks matters is whether scientists talk in terms that “speak”, personally, to Simon Jenkins. Or, one could say, terms which speak to his prejudices.
And I am also left concluding that he pretty much makes this stuff up as he goes along.
(Not his basic boilerplate article railing against science, of course – he seems to recycle that one with gusto. Indeed, if I were really going to spoof him with conviction I guess I should reprint my piece from last week every six weeks or so, with only minor cosmetic alterations).
Be afraid – be very afraid…
Now this “making it up as you go along” is, of course, a long-standing tradition in Britain, both in certain social circles and in comment journalism. So perhaps we should expect nothing else.
The nagging worry is that there might be some people out there who take Jenkins’ views on science, and scientists, seriously. Just last week I heard one worried senior scientist refer not just to Jenkins’ article, but to Jenkins “influential readership”.
The obvious implication was that politicians, top mandarins, the media and other members of the Great and the Good, are where one finds Jenkins’ readers.
And in an era when the Tories have just put an Evangelical Christian with a tendency to invent her own statistics and facts, and a man who believes astrology can help surgeons get better operating results, onto the House of Commons Health Select Committee… …that thought really does worry me.
It worries me quite a bit.