From Our Readers – October 2020

Editor’s note: Once again, as we did the first time we ran this column, we have a reader’s perspective on our discipline offered by one of our scientist members: immunologist and self-declared scientist-historian Donald Forsdyke, Emeritus Professor of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences in the School of Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston ON, Canada.

Finding Team A? Scientist Historians and Historians of Science 

by Donald R. Forsdyke

The 2013 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment is history-free. Yet, research systems are most likely to be successful if based on accurate knowledge of past research—grist for the mill for historians of science and of special importance in coronavirus times. Sadly, the historical accuracy of primary research reports may sometimes cede to other pressures. In a recent article, I have argued that certain accolades bestowed upon transplantation immunologist Peter Medawar and physicist Erwin Schrödinger should rightly be assigned to the Victorian polymath, Samuel Butler. In other words, when messengers are not authors of messages they bear, they should not be praised for the novelty of ideas in the messages. Given that strengths at discipline interfaces are often asymmetric, my recognition of Butler may reflect more my background in science than in history. Scientific practice motivates me as a scientist historian, more than as a member of the historian of science mainstream, to study research management systems.

Most current bioscience research dates back no further than to Darwin. However, high impact research system reforms date back no further than to the post-WWII era of government reorganization—a period that Dean Acheson in 1950 likened to being “present at the creation.” Debates on US NIH operations then focused on government versus researcher control. There became established a system of peer-review evaluation that I, in an article years ago, likened to a giraffe’s neck, where a nerve was condemned to a tortuous path by prior evolutionary events.

Simply stated, a system of peer review was established “at the creation” in the 1940s with little thought, either to possible alternatives, or to the idea that “excellence” might not automatically rise to the top whatever the system. Thus, no thought was given either to system replacement should it fail or, indeed, to criteria of failure. The system was easily marketable as likely to maximize government funding. That was enough.

But excellence is not a fungible commodity. It is those selected by their success in that first system, who are now hailed as the experts. They advise us, both in good times and bad. And it is they who are consulted concerning peer-review reform: surely, “I am a great researcher. The system recognizes me as a great researcher. Therefore, the system must be great!” Thus, like the giraffe’s tortuous nerve, the sciences became constrained by historical contingency.

My hope that historians of science would assist was set out in a tongue-in-cheek reply in November 1993 to scientists who, in the Newsletter of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, had bewailed a crisis in research funding:

Decades ago, the first priority of the National Institutes of Health should have been the establishment of an Institute for the History of Science with the mandate of investigating how past discoveries were made and how the discovery process might be optimized. Surrounding that very large institute would be the much smaller, less richly staffed institutes dedicated to cancer, infectious diseases and other biomedical subjects. Over the years, the latter institutes would probably have grown and the former would possibly have shrunk. Perhaps there would then be no “current crisis … of epidemic proportions” with pious calls for us only now to begin “serious study and analysis.”

Wearing a historian’s hat, I have long pursued this study while continuing my scientific work. With other Canadian scientists, in the 1990s I formed a society for system reform—sadly ephemeral—which held meetings, addressed government committees, and published articles and a book (2000). The appearance of the internet both assisted these efforts and revolutionized the speed and depth of literature access. At last scientists could easily seek out historic papers.

However, in those early years, publishers gave twentieth century papers on-line priority. To bridge the gap, in 1998 I began scanning historic papers and archival materials for my webpages, paying much attention to William Bateson, Samuel Butler, Gregor Mendel, George Romanes, and—of great present significance—John Burdon Sanderson, uncle of the great J.B.S. Haldane. Like Pasteur and a few others—Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, Crick—he was one of a precious few.

Then, as today, we needed the best researchers, team A, not team B, and the record shows that Sanderson was up to the task. His 1860s account of the highly infectious cattle plague, rinderpest was scrutinized by the politicians no less intently than they today scrutinize accounts of the highly infectious coronavirus. Given our world population, we would expect many hundreds of such individuals—people who would scent out novel paradigms during the current crisis, to lead the team B multitude to more productive chases. Where are they?

The scientific peer review system currently serves, and is run by, some splendid researchers. But they have no new paradigms to offer. They are team B and the task of sifting through perceived “mavericks” for rare members of team A is likely beyond them. Team B is served because its members share a common paradigm, which includes the peer-review system they operate in, and ideas are easily exchanged and comprehended. Team A is not served because its members’ task is entirely different. They must tune to the mindset of team B reviewers, which entails discarding their own novel ideas. Pressed to expediency, they must take a B-compliant idea and frame it more positively than their B competitors. This requires a capacity for political flexibility and insight that is likely beyond them. They are system-ensnared “Gullivers”!

For their identification among mavericks we need an interface group larger than team A, but much smaller than team B. Darwinian wisdom trickled down to Victorian England courtesy of his “bulldog” Thomas Huxley. Similarly, Alan Cock and I, mainly wearing our “scientist historian” hats, added fresh perspectives on Samuel Butler and others (2008). As far as I know only other person, Laura Otis, had anticipated us with her 1994 book, Organic Memory! Sailing through troubled pandemic era waters (see the May issue of Centaurus) will need historians of all stripes on deck!

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