It’ll be a long time before scientists figure out why this branch is white.
And even longer before the public finds out.


Is there any place to check in for updates on this research?

Timothy Jordan asked this question on Chris Bauer’s blog about figuring out the genetics of redwood albinism. Unfortunately, the answer is that there really isn’t any place to see how the research is going.

This is because science is this weird combination of secrecy and openness. Research projects start out as proprietary but once finished, they become open source.

What this means is that no results will be released until a good chunk of the research is done and it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. This usually takes a year or more and albino redwoods will probably take even longer.

Part of the reason for this is simple caution on the part of scientists. No one wants to release results so early that that they have to retract them later. Like everyone else, scientists don’t like to be proven wrong in public.

But this only explains not communicating preliminary results. Once a result is pretty solid, it should be OK to broadcast publicly. Except that it still isn’t.

This isn’t the fault of many of the scientists doing the research. I remember wanting to shout my latest results from the mountaintops as soon as I got them. Lots of scientists I have talked to feel the same way.

The problem has more to do with how science is funded. It simply isn’t designed to allow incremental progress to become public.

Scientists rely on the federal government for most of their funding. The NIH, NSF, DOE, and a few other agencies supply the lion’s share of research dollars.

Labs are awarded these grants based on the work they have done. There is absolutely no incentive for sharing their work early. In fact, sharing work too soon can cost you grant money and maybe even (eventually) your lab.

The graveyard of the scientific careers of those scientists who released their data too soon. Photo by Corpse Reviver.

To be credible, scientific results must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is the “coin of the realm” in the scientific world. To succeed as a scientist, you need lots of these in the top journals and of course, successful scientists are the ones who get funded.

These journals frown on releasing data before that data can make a big splash for their journal. This forces scientists to not release information to the general public (although they can talk about it at some point at scientific meetings). To keep from perishing, scientists need to keep their results under wraps.

Not only that, but scientists are not above stealing someone’s data and using it to get to the full story first. Smaller labs in particular are vulnerable to this sort of predation. Again, this forces scientists to keep their results to themselves rather than broadcasting it far and wide. Otherwise, they’ll have nothing to show for their work and they won’t get funded.

The only way to overcome these barriers and get results presented to the public in a more timely manner would be to change how science gets funded. Make it so there is lots of money to go around so that scientists will get money whether their lab makes the breakthrough or someone else uses your preliminary results to make the breakthrough.

Of course this won’t happen. For one thing, you wouldn’t be able to screen out the bad and/or lazy scientists nor reward the true go-getters. And besides, there are already way too many labs chasing way too few grants. Given that our government is sliding into insolvency, it is very unlikely that they will throw any more money at science so the public can get information any sooner.

A new way to fund science also wouldn’t change other aspects that keep our current system in place. For example, many scientists like to get a result first and beat the other guys. No funding tweaks are going to change this competitiveness.

Looks like we’ll have to stick with the current way that science is set up. It has done a great job of explaining our world and how it works. We just need to be patient and wait for the findings to eventually be released. As soon as they are, I’ll update you right here.

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Secretive Openness 14 March,2011Dr. Barry Starr

Author

Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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