Positive thinking

Summer and early autumn in Australia—Christmas, warm weather, holidays and relaxation, a glut of sport, the start of a new year—are generally a time of optimism and hope. And a good thing for science, too. Last year ground to a halt in a flurry of lies and deception over stem-cell research in South Korea, continuing controversy in the United States over Darwinian evolution, a depressing avalanche of new findings confirming the march of climate change, and the seemingly inexorable spread of bird flu.

So, in the spirit of the times, Archimedes thought to write a column about positive, upbeat happenings in science—the things to which we often pay too little attention. In the past year, for instance, we have begun to learn a lot about bird flu, and how to cope with it. We even have vaccines that look promising, one of them Australian. And Australian research has also led to another vaccine of a different kind which gives almost total protection against the major viral cause of cervical cancer.

But that’s not the kind of science that lingers in the public domain. Instead, it’s the research that produces politically, socially or morally inconvenient results that remains uppermost in people’s minds. The results of scientific research feed into and are filtered through society. They are subject to the political process and can be used for good or ill. Often they create as many difficulties as they solve problems.

Often research projects such as those listed by Archimedes at the beginning of this column as good and optimistic turn out to raise difficult questions over how the results will be employed.

The more we learn about bird flu, for instance, the more obvious it becomes that the most efficient way to stop any potential pandemic is to confine the virus to birds. That means massive culling and vaccination of domestic poultry, and finding ways of keeping the virus separate from its wild migratory relatives. Anywhere this is not done can serve as a potential reservoir for infecting the rest of the world. But while some affected countries such as Japan and Thailand have the resources to able to act effectively in this way, others, such as Vietnam and some African nations, clearly do not.

It will be interesting to see who will provide these resources. Because of the risk of losing his livelihood, an Indonesian farmer needs to be compensated for reporting bird flu in his flock. Which of the rich nations will decide to provide money for that purpose rather than using it to prod their own pharmaceutical companies into generating protective vaccines for humans?

Then what of the cervical cancer vaccine? Surely, that’s unequivocally good? Unfortunately, in order for the vaccine to be fully effective, girls have to be inoculated before they become sexually active. Who decides when that is? Already this issue has caused rumblings from conservative and fundamentalist groups.

Perhaps we need to spend less time trying to denigrate inconvenient research, and more time learning to live with it—recognising that curiosity, science and research are normal important parts of our society, instead of assuming they are a creature of Dr Frankenstein. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.


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