Friday, March 02, 2007

Cause and Effectiveness

PZ Meyers is in high dudgeon in this post exhorting those who lay any claim to an understanding of the processes and the overwhelming logic of evolution to stop laying low in the company of deniers and fence sitters. Comment there is split over whether the fierce charge is helpful to the cause or merely reassuring to those who are already comfortable with the power of Darwin's idea. If you work in the biological sciences, you might have seen this paper but, being about the "tribe of science" [Dr. Free-Ride's term, most handy] rather than science, I doubt it made it to the top of your stack of papers to be read. OK, so its meta-science, but it appears to be a pretty well designed study from what I can read. The contention, to get right to the point, is that there is a clear and measurable reluctance by researchers who are in fact involved in the evolution of pathogens to actually call a clade a clade and use the "e-word". The frequency of occurrence of the word "evolution" in the titles of articles in three categories of journal: general science, evolution research and biomedical research is almost monotonic increase from 1990 until now. This is interpreted to indicate the growing understanding of genetic basis of most biological phenomena and the understanding that the gene is the key link forever on the anvil of selection pressures. But an unmistakable chill in the use of the word shows up in the graph of frequency in titles of research grants from the federal government beginning early in the rein of Bush the second: a rapid rise of frequency in NIH grant titles suddenly plateaus and a general up trend in NSF grant titles abruptly slopes down.
The authors used a very large set of observations. This is no anecdote. And remember that this is being said of research you are paying for with taxes, research that is supposed to be curing or understanding diseases you may have or get:
This reflects the growing importance of evolutionary concepts in the biomedical field, and highlights even more the strange rarity with which the word “evolution” is used in the biomedical literature dealing with antimicrobial resistance. It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word “evolution” in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy. Indeed, we were told by one researcher that in the title of one proposal, the authors were urged to change the phrase “the evolution of sex” to the more arcanely eloquent wording “the advantage of bi-parental genomic recombination.”

I have to wonder what happened to the research ideas of scientists like PZ who would rip heads off, [figure of speech, OK?] if asked to censor one of his grant proposal's for the e-word? Does the Bush Stooge looking over the shoulders of competent administrators at NSF round file those? Such titles would not even show up on these graphs, one of the ways in which bush league government is a black hole.

This is not some tempest in an academic teapot. Medical science can not work fast enough and damn well knows it. None of us should be quiet about an administration that puts the brakes on research we need.
Nowadays, medical researchers are increasingly realizing that evolutionary processes are involved in immediate threats associated with not only antibiotic resistance but also emerging diseases [1,2]. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance has resulted in 2- to 3-fold increases in mortality of hospitalized patients, has increased the length of hospital stays, and has dramatically increased the costs of treatment [3,4].

I am not a strategist who could devine the optimum tone of a campaign to remove the shackles of superstitions banded about a sound and vital category of research. But certainly, I can no longer begrudge PZ his anger and contempt at the damage to the effectiveness of science by this administration and its abettors.

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