Molecular biology still has its idealists, but their ponytails are greying.

by reestheskin on 10/04/2014

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Nice turn of phrase in a Nature book review by Nathaniel Comfort, of ‘Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise,’ by Nicolas Rasmussen. I haven’t read the book but the review contains a telling phrase:

Molecular biology still has its idealists, but their ponytails are greying. Today’s graduate students want training in economics, marketing and management, even MBAs. You can now go into biology for the money.

I have mainly researched in two domains; molecular biology and molecular genetics; and for a shorter period of time (and still, to a limited degree) in using computers to help us learn and practise. Comfort draws some parallels and contrasts, between these two domains of science and engineering, writing:

The contrasts between computing and biotech are as interesting as the continuities. Unlike the nerds of Silicon Valley, who started up their companies in garages, the bio-geeks started theirs in well-stocked, mainly government-funded university labs. But, as in IT, the dream became having your little company bought by one of the big corporations. By the 1990s, both industries had become less freewheeling and curiosity-driven, and more privatized and gold-directed.

One of the differences is brought out in a quote from Stewart Brand:

“I think that hackers–dedicated, innovative, irreverent computer programmers–are the most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the US constitution. … No other group that I know of has set out to liberate a technology and succeeded. They not only did so against the active disinterest of corporate America, their success forced corporate America to adopt their style in the end….. The quietest of all the ‘60s subcultures has emerged as the most innovative and powerful”.

Molecular biology never had this widespread culture of hacking for long—it became institutionalised all too early in its history. In the long term, the hackers will have —I hope — more influence on medicine, and most of all on how we teach and learn medicine. It is still easier to set up a software business than a hardware business. If the barriers to entry are lower, we will see more novelty. I like to think the best is yet to come.

 

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