Conservative (with a small “c”) research

This is really interesting. I’m reading it at work so I can’t tell you if it’s behind the paywall, but I sincerely hope not; it deserves to be read widely:

Edwards, A.M. et al. (2011)
Too many roads not taken.
Nature 470: 163–165
doi:10.1038/470163a

Most protein research focuses on those known before the human genome was mapped. Work on the slew discovered since, urge Aled M. Edwards and his colleagues.

The article includes some nicely-done bibliometric analysis. I’ve lifted a few quotes that illustrate some of the key points.

  • More than 75% of protein research still focuses on the 10% of proteins that were known before the genome was mapped
  • Around 65% of the 20,000 kinase papers published in 2009 focused on the 50 proteins that were the ‘hottest’ in the early 1990s
  • Similarly, 75% of the research activity on nuclear hormone receptors in 2009 focused on the 6 (of 48) receptors that were most studied in the mid 1990s
  • A common assumption is that previous research efforts have preferentially identified the most important proteins – the evidence doesn’t support this
  • Why the reluctance to work on the unknown? […] scientists are wont to “fondle their problems”
  • Funding and peer-review systems are risk-averse
  • The availability of chemical probes for a given receptor dictates the level of research interest in it; the development of these tools is not driven by the importance of the protein

I love the phrase “fondle their problems.”

I’ve long felt that academic research has increasingly little to do with “advancing knowledge” and is more concerned with churning out “more of the same” to consolidate individual careers. However, that’s just me being opinionated and anecdotal. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Conservative (with a small “c”) research

  1. Paulo

    I met Aled Edwards last year in Ottawa. He presented the main goals of his work, and we spoke for a good amount of time during lunch. He’s a brilliant mind, maybe somewhat ahead of the time, and his work seems to be extremely good. From the small workshop where we were at, he was flying to New Jersey to pitch ideas of Open Science and his “protein rescue” work with pharma execs.

  2. Andy

    Hey, this might be because most of the proteins whose functions are known have been found via mutagenesis screens, and those aren’t really aided much by genomics, at least until whole genome sequencing becomes slightly more accessible.

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  4. Istvan Albert

    IMO peer review and funding are risk averse because it hard to distinguish between exciting new directions and bullshit.

  5. Ragothaman

    I completely agree with Istvan. Novel ideas that do not go well with reviewers who don’t like taking risks do not get funded at all. Science is not conservative, scientists are. No wonder the data is not so surprising…

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