Bruce Alberts visits Barcelona (2003)

The incidental journalist.

By Albert Cardona, September 4th, 2003.

Bruce Alberts, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, gave a lecture today as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the DNA helix description by Watson & Crick. Besides explaining and contextualizing several basic molecular mechanisms regarding DNA, he also took some questions.

He was asked on giving advice to a fresh graduate student taking a post-doc in the US. He advised: do not focus in yes-no questions, such as "is this theoretical model valid", since it can all result in an enormous waste of time. Instead perform such work that even though the desired answer is not found, several others are, thus positively contributing to the general pool of scientific knowledge.

He was asked if heavier focus should be put on either theory or data, and he said, although developing theories is essential for research, data is needed to limit the span of theoretical questions. Nowadays huge amount of genomic data is waiting for such theoretical, integrative explanations. Nonetheless, he remarked theory without data is useless, such as in the advice given to the future post-doc.

He was asked on the Academy's relationships with the Bush administration. He answered, the Academy can not offer what the ruling party expects to hear, since the Academy lasts longer that the current administration and in case it was playing ball like that, it would become discredited forever. What the Academy does, said it's own president, is to gather the best scientific knowledge possible and offer it for politicians to take decisions, in the form of an annual report. In order to help, reports are offered in a graded manner, that is, if the current issue is the arsenic presence in drinking water, then cancer rates and death-costs are estimated for 1 ppm, 5, 10, 20, ... of arsenic in water, so politicians can perform a benefit-cost analysis and choose the best option (which is 10, for the case). He remarked though that perfection usually means infinite time and resources, and so man can never achieve such state of grace. He mentioned the Academy, since its reports are pure science, maintained through several administrations some claims which where finally adopted by this or that other administration, regardless of being republican or democratic. He declared the Academy, based on scientific data, disregards human reproductive cloning as viable, and is for stem cell research and genetically modified foods.

He then offered his views on the issue of education. He is known for teaching science to children, and his daughter is a science school teacher. He explained only 15% of US children is getting a scientific education, meaning this 15% learns not to automatically look for the right answer when facing a question put by their teachers, but to explore several possibilities and decide using the scientific method. The important notion that every student should get is that answers are not hidden in books for them to find, but actually there is still an endless list of unanswered questions and new fields to explore. He said the Academy is concerned in increasing such %, and that it had some success since it used to be as low as 1%.

He also described the situation for scientists getting a stable, independent position as critical, since they happen to do so when around 40 years old, when that used to be around 28. This has important consequences on the way science is done: when a scientist gets a position so late in his life, he continues doing what he's been doing so far, thus no off-mainstream ideas are followed at all. There is a need for young minds to get their own independent labs since they quite more easily pursue wild ideas, which will in the long run contribute greatly to scientific discovery by opening new research paths. He also stressed that given the great and increasing numbers of scientists, and the complexity of the problems they have to face compared to 30 years ago, it is more and more difficult for a single person to make an outstanding contribution, and that somehow prevents the pursue of wild ideas, innovation, and makes the whole thing less attractive.