Saturday, 18 June 2011

Science reporting: from breakthroughs to projects

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Scientific progress has gone into reverse, and one of the most obvious signs is that the media now do not report breakthroughs but projects.

eg. Some random biological fact is 'expected to' lead to a cure for cancer; Professor x has won a multimillion grant to make discovery y; University z has built a vast new (eco-friendly) institute and filled it with people and machines...

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Of course, this began some time ago with the human genome project, the rise of brain imaging, the relabelling exercise of 'nanotechnology' and with money-raising for the big physics machines.

None of these led to anything interesting or useful, but created a new evaluation system in (what still calls itself) science.

So, for the past generation, most research careers have been built by 'working-on' problems - the solution to which would be, it is claimed, a breakthrough.

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We no longer wait to find out whether something actually does lead to any significant or useful outcome - presumably because they very seldom do.

Best to get the publicity on the basis of what research might do, rather than await inevitable disappointment.

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But anyway, nobody is interested in scientific breakthroughs. Nowadays a breakthrough is something which leads to major new funding opportunities.

That was why the Human Genome Project was regarded as the most important research in history. Scientifically it was nothing, professionally it was a gravy train.

As big grant awards and expensive projects are themselves the sole and sufficient purpose of a research career, then naturally these are what gets reported and celebrated.

And dressing-up bureaucratic expansion as a scientific breakthrough is business-as-usual for the modern media.

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