Known Unknowns

Posted by Pete Shanks December 2, 2008
Biopolitical Times

Denise Caruso recently made the interesting point that "in many respects scientists know less today about these mechanisms [that govern living organisms] than they did even just five years ago." That may seem counterintuitive, given the undeniable advances in genomic sequencing technology, but in a vaguely Socratic sense, this can be counted as a useful development: At least we are beginning to understand how little we understand.

Several recent reports, from different areas, underscore this:

All this may seem like bad news for those whose approach to research is driven by the impulse to market products immediately. It's not necessarily: As Prof. Michael Chapman points out, "if your only way forward is IVF, then an increase in risk from one in 100 to two in 100 for most people is an acceptable risk." It's worth remembering also that bone-marrow transplants, for example, became treatments before the mechanism behind the therapy was understood at all.

But anomalies are good news for science: more problems to solve! And basic science -- whose funding need not and should not be dependent on specific applications -- is what is needed to produce real cures in the long run.