A while back I went to Baltimore for the 2011 Meeting of the Biophysical Society. I heard a number of protein scientists sharing and promoting their research. I saw some old friends and made some new ones. Also I burned (by proxy) some jet fuel, putting even more greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) into the atomosphere. My food and lodging costs also came with carbon emissions. But the conference was fun, and it’s good for my career to participate in these meetings. Makes sense, right? After all, to make an omlette, you have to break some eggs (and to heat-denature their delicious proteins).
Protein scientists like to think and talk about proteins. They often find funding to work on medically-relevant problems. Whenever you see a scientific talk on disease-related proteins there’s usually an introduction where the speaker spells out the societal burdens of the disease, and how the disease relates to the presenter’s research strategy. It provides a context for the results and helps to justify the presenter’s funding.
The funding does need justification. It no longer suprises me to see a given scientific endeavor compared with boiling the ocean. (I don’t know where the phrase came from, but the notion of ‘boiling the ocean’ is presented as a particularly futile way of finding something dissolved in it.) Biology has an ocean’s worth of complexity, and studying life phenomena often feels immensly futile. So people do what they always do in the face of futility: they lower the bar. People find some definition of progress that’s easier to accomplish. The reduced goals, the little goals that are more attainable, become the major marketing thrust of a scientist’s research. I can’t actually cure cancer, perhaps I can sell you a new chemo drug. I can’t actually cure diabetes, perhaps I can sell you a new insulin pump. I can’t actually replace the oil infrastructure, perhaps I can sell you a hybrid car.
So I was at the conference in Baltimore listening to a particularly esteemed scientist lecture on the societal burdens of some protein-related misadventure. He made a good case for his position: in another thirty years, the economic burden from this disease would be enormous. And then he quipped something to the extent of, ‘If you ask me, this disease is a bigger societal burden than the results of climate change.’
It was a compelling illustration of the outlook of a self-identified sustainer of civilization. Keeping the developed world’s aging population healthy was more important than mitigating the long-term consequences of industrial activity. One thing had been neatly weighed against the other. The scientist advancing this position had certainly churned out plenty of industrial activity. Assuming he wants to improve the world, this has to be a justifiable expenditure of resources. So he was meaningfully weighing the cost of aging populations in rich countries against the costs of climate change.
I think that’s probably a reckless thought process, where the potential for long-term perturbations to the biosphere is weighed against the usefulness of a given activity. It’s similar to Bjorn Lumborg’s approach: let’s consider a set of possible outcomes, let’s calculate the costs of different strategies. The public presentation of arguments weighing productivity against environmental risk betrays a belief that we can understand these phenomena enough to bet on them. When our risk assessment ends up supporting the outcome we were hoping for, it further reflection to ensure we’re not just confirming our beliefs, or telling our supporters what they want to hear.
Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.