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Pushing obstacles
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Taking the road less traveled

The choice of what to study can determine not only researchers' chances of winning the funding needed to build a scientific career, but also their chances of making a significant scientific contribution. As an engaging recent book and a number of other accounts make clear, however, pursuing controversial or unconventional questions can also have unpleasant personal consequences. 

A book published this spring by Northwestern University historian of science Alice Dreger, Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science, demonstrates that those risks go back centuries. And today, a number of factors appear to be converging in ways that may further discourage or even prevent researchers from pursuing important work.

The cost of standing up for controversial results can be devastating to researchers and their families, Dreger makes clear.

One factor is that the goals of obtaining a grant and making a breakthrough discovery are increasingly at odds, warn Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and former director of the National Cancer Institute, in a highly publicized critique of U.S. biomedical research that was published in April 2014. Real breakthroughs entail unconventional thinking and require work that may repeatedly fail to meet expectations. These days, however, winning grants seems to require staying within the bounds of the known, the authors write. Today’s “hypercompetition” for funding, they assert, encourages “conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas.”

Greater risks

Researchers who choose to go against the grain also risk offending the scientific establishment. If a researcher is very lucky, the reaction from defenders of the intellectual status quo may consist of civil debate and attempts to produce countervailing evidence. Often, however, the response may include active opposition and ad hominem attacks aimed at destroying the career and reputation of the maverick scientist.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

Although the Internet makes it very easy to turn a scientific controversy into a public campaign of criticism and derogation, such behavior did not start with Twitter. In Madness and Memory: The Discovery of Prions—A New Biological Principle of Disease, Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner describes the years of opprobrium and ridicule that accompanied his totally unprecedented idea, first advanced in the 1980s. “For more than ten years, Stanley Prusiner fought an uneven battle against overwhelming opposition,” noted Ralf Pettersson, who was vice chair of the Nobel committee for physiology and medicine when Prusiner was honored in 1997.

At the milder end of personal travail is the experience of Barry J. Marshall (which is not recounted in these books). Marshall shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for proving that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori rather than by stress, a longstanding and erroneous connection that formed the basis both of thinking on the subject and of the lucrative standard treatment. As he tried to put his findings forward, “most of my work was rejected for publication and even accepted papers were significantly delayed,” Marshall recalls in his Nobel Prize biography.

He had no animal model of the infection to use in his studies—rats and mice are not susceptible—so he famously used an experimental subject that did not require ethics approval or special funding: himself. After ascertaining that his gut did not contain the bacterium, he brewed up a potion of cells from a sick patient and drank it. Within days he was sick and started developing an ulcer. A gastric biopsy retrieved bacteria that, when cultured, clearly proved that H. pylori had caused his illness, nailing its role in the causation of ulcers and sparking prompt, worldwide acceptance of antibiotics as treatment for gastritis and ulcer.

Devastating costs

In her book, Dreger recounts the stories of almost a dozen scientists, as well as her personal experiences in some of the controversies. One long-running and very bitter dispute involved the work of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, known to generations of students for Yanomamo: The Fierce People, an ethnography of a tribe in the Amazonian jungle. Chagnon, a pioneering ethnographer and an early advocate of controversial sociobiological approaches to analysis, was accused not only of flawed scholarship and inaccurate results, but also of instigating genocide and encouraging murder among the group he spent his professional life studying. Dreger details the lengthy and lurid controversy that ensued. It damaged the reputations of both Chagnon and the American Anthropological Association. Debate over Chagnon's work continues, but research by Dreger, which she describes in the book, severely undercuts the charges of genocide and countenancing homicide. In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences elected Chagnon to membership.

The cost of standing up for controversial results can be devastating to researchers and their families, Dreger makes clear. Probably only a minority of the most confident, committed and thick-skinned can persevere against savage opposition, she speculates. Prusiner says that he persisted because he never found another problem as captivating as prions, but Dreger cites a number of researchers who, after bruising public disputes over unconventional conclusions, retreated to other, less inflammatory, lines of inquiry.

One traditional ally in a scientist’s fight to challenge the establishment is no longer an imposing presence, says Dreger. “The tradition of investigative journalism” by experienced and well-informed reporters “has been weakened in the [past] decade … by the economic struggles of magazines and newspapers in the wake of the Internet’s rise,” she notes. “The American press, once a large and fearsome institution, now seem[s] emaciated and timid, jumpy and distracted.” In addition, academic tenure, another traditional defense that has helped some researchers weather attacks, is available to a dwindling percentage of academics in today’s world of temporary, soft-money research positions and contingent faculty appoints, Dreger notes. 

Of course, not all controversial or unconventional research leads to breakthroughs, and many—probably most—ideas that appear crazy to critics quite simply are. But some of those ideas prove to be harbingers of major new insights. Knowledge cannot advance unless scientists have both the wherewithal and the courage to seek new and unexpected answers. As long as the scientific community tolerates attacks that intimidate researchers into silence, we will never know what great discoveries were never made.

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