Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Openness in Science"

A few months back, the Royal Society of Chemistry held a writing competition on "Openness in Science"held a writing competition on "Openness in Science". Having to spend the day at home prepping for a medical exam the next day (that kind that start becoming routine once your age can be rounded up to 100), I wrote up an entry and submitted it. I didn't win or even get on the shortlist, so I am seeking revenge by posting here so that my readers can be subjected to it. I admit it is an unusual take on "openness", and the first paragraph may make you blush, but you'll get past it. Just like I did with my exam.

Openness in Science
The researcher stood at the podium. He had presented his new, revolutionary idea with data to support it, and yet he could still tell that the audience was skeptical. And so he did the only thing he could do to further convey his results – he pulled down his pants.

Openness in science usually refers to the sharing of data and critical samples, the public publishing of results, or the open discussions that occur at conferences. But openness can also refer to the concept that is most closely related to the historical meaning of the word open: that of public exposure and the almost nakedness associated with it.

In my own field of polymer chemistry for instance, consider the difficulties faced by Hermann Staudinger. In the 1920’s, scientists were beginning to measure the molecular weights of naturally occurring macromolecules such as natural rubber, starches and proteins. The results of the measurements were unbelievable at first, suggesting molecular weights so much greater than anything previously known. Such eminent chemists such as Emil Fischer and Heinrich Wieland (both Nobel Prize winners) scoffed at the idea of such large molecules being made up of covalent bonds and instead proposed that the observed results were arising from colloidal associations between large numbers of smaller molecules. Staudinger was convinced otherwise, that covalent bonding to such a large degree was not only possible, but was in fact occurring and was responsible for these molecules of such large molecular weight.

The mockery of his idea wasn’t just from Fischer and Wieland, but from whole groups of chemists, climaxing at the 1925 meeting of the Zurich Chemical Society. Here is where Staudinger, facing a heckling crowd, famously quoted Martin Luther “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders” (Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise).

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to open oneself up like this, especially to well-respected colleagues. How intimidating it must have been to be standing at a podium with fellow chemists so motivated to object to your talk that they break the expected rules of decorum to do so. Unlike the researcher referred to earlier, Staudinger did not undress on the stage, but nonetheless he hardly would have been more exposed if he had.

Why is openness such as this so important to science? Because it allows for the rapid study of novel ideas. While many ideas are complete flops, other succeed and more importantly, many of these ideas are revolutionary, upsetting existing paradigms, suggesting whole new fields of research or otherwise changing the history of science. But when an idea is kept to only one individual or even a small group, no one else can contribute to advance (or denigrate) it.

Wallace Carothers, a young chemistry professor who had just started at Harvard University became intrigued with Staudinger’s ideas and started devloping polymerization reactions, ultimately leading a research team at DuPont that created for the first time the neoprenes, nylons and polyesters that are still being made by DuPont today. 10 years would pass before the needed scientific measurements came about to convince the general body of chemists that molecules of such high molecular could indeed exist, and yet the idea was already being explored, developed and put to practical use before such data existed.

As for the researcher who actually did undress on stage, that was Sir Giles Brindley who was speaking about pharmaceutical treatments for erectile dysfunction. The talk was given back in 1983, well before Viagra or similar medications were available, and at a time when the concept of pharmaceutical treatments was not even thought possible. Dr. Brindley’s research had involved injecting various agents into his own penis and recording the results. The skepticism from the audience was enough that at the end of his talk he dropped his pants to prove his point, having previous injected himself before the lecture had started.

As with Staudinger, such openness allowed others to advance on it. Pharmaceutical companies quickly took notice of the research, developing the many erectile dysfunction drugs that we have today.
Both Staudinger and Brindley could have kept quiet and not spoke up. They could have slowly continued to collect the necessary data until the proof was definitive. They could have waited until their older opponents had passed on or retired and a younger, more receptive set of chemists came along. But they didn’t. They opened their ideas up to the scientific community and in doing so, exposed themselves to derision and potential embarrassment and their reputation to possible ruin.

Such openness is risky, very risky. I’m not sure that I would have the wherewithal to ever take such a stand, but I am elated that there are some who will when such openness is warranted.

Previous Years

March 19, 2012 - Plastics Recycling Conference

March 19, 2010 - Another Use for FTIR in the Medical Lab

March 19, 2009 - Nitrogen Enriched Gasoline???

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