Scientists as Dream-Sowers

by Marija Strojnik | Aug 31, 2023


Paul was a particularly bright student. On the day of the defense of his doctoral dissertation, just before his committee started deliberations, I opened questions to the public. I am confident that my students are sufficiently prepared to answer any question. But then Paul was tripped up by a question concerning how long it would take for tissue-transillumination with near-infrared light—the subject of his thesis—to solve the cancer problem.

Ten years later, I was giving an award to another bright young scientist who had developed a technique for generating near-infrared light to image cancerous cells in the brain, an approach that he promised would replace drilling holes in the skull to image tumors. I was in shock when I heard this researcher also overpromise the potential of his technique. The researcher in the last case obviously told the same promising story to the funding source as he wrote in the published paper. If mouse skull were actually there during his experiment, imaging with infrared light would not be possible.

I tell these stories to illustrate one of the reasons why there now seem to be so many people who no longer trust science. This erosion of trust in science was most obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in an everincreasing chasm between those who trust science blindly and those who are skeptical about its promises, potential, and actual accomplishments. Who tells the stories that, at least to some people, carry little credibility?

The general progress of medical research has been extremely slow. Fifty years ago, President Nixon promised that cancer would be cured before the end of the century, just as President Kennedy had promised to put a human on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. But space travel proved a simpler puzzle than progress in health science. Today, one in two people will experience a brush with cancer, compared with one in three only 20 years ago. When President Kennedy first talked about conquering space, the most promising medication against several cancers, including the extremely stealthy ovarian cancer, was being discovered. In its less harsh form, doxyl was not generally available forty years later because of incredible difficulties in process control. While young medical and scientific researchers were promising hyped-up breakthroughs in cancer research, exasperated cancer patients pleaded with the government to streamline the production of an existing, proven, and effective medication, doxyl, a so-called last defense. Finally, the U.S. government designated it an orphan drug, and assured its production.

May scientists never forget that, while they have the current skills and ideas to forge the scientific progress, the humans in their own heads and in dusty libraries keep stored all the knowledge that the world acquired through the ages.

Marija Strojnik, PhD
Sigma Xi President

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