The Opposing Thumb

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Epilogue: Requiem for Applied Science

Thursday’s post on the zombiefication of science policy by the trendy buzzword virus left a lingering aftertaste that I could not quite place. Part of it was probably just residual snobbery, a pointless resentment that the translational excellence crowd did to the English language what Michael Bolton did to soul music. As a final note on this hang-up, I would recommend to all who have not yet done so the reading of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

More importantly, I want to come back to ‘applied’ vs. ‘translational’, because I do believe that the language we use affects the way we think. As an immunologist, I’m often exposed to discussions on pervasive war metaphors in my field, i.e., the immune system as our ‘defensive army’ and so on. There is little doubt that permanent immersion in this bellicose vocabulary constrained the way we discussed issues like tolerance and self-reactivity.

‘Applied’, at least in my understanding, carried with it a respect for basic science that ‘translational’ lacks. Why? Because in applied sciences you looked at progress in basic science and asked which practical problems could it, well, be applied to. Newtonian mechanics was applied to the problem of putting Buzz and Neil on the Moon. Electromagnetic theory was applied to the problem of how to communicate with them on the way there. Research on micronutrients and metabolism was applied to the problem of how to pack enough food in their capsule to ensure that Space Age explorers did not end up with Age of Discovery scurvy. And so on. Applied science lets basic science get on with its business and periodically harvests what it sees as ripe. Right now, studies of immunity in fruit flies in the 90s have given rise to a model of innate immune receptors that is ready to be applied to areas like vaccination.

‘Translational’ does not respect this boundary, or recognize this debt (though it will pay lip service to basic science when it is politically expedient to differentiate your minister from Sarah Palin). Calls for translational proposals are slowly taking over public funding of science- as in the massive Horizon 20/20 initiative. They require that all research have an eye on marketable ‘deliverables’ from the outset. It’s ok for them that Newton write equations, as long as he can show that it will help his SME sell more apples.

There is no translator from bench to bedside, or from lab to production line. But there are always many exciting scientific discoveries that can be applied in the real world. If we let translational research kill basic science, we will eventually run out of knowledge to apply. Then, like medieval scholastics with Aristotle, we will pore over twentieth century papers on fruit fly genetics, wondering what happened to all the new ideas.

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