28 August, 2013

Thoughts on Optogenetics & Science Journalism

I can understand why biomedical researchers might be touchy about criticism of optogenetics, especially in this basic research-unfriendly funding moment, and sci-tech writers might be touchy. But what John calls the “hype cycle” — by which I suspect he means, “excited coverage of basic and early-stage research as though it’s of potential public health importance in the near future” — is a real problem.

John says it discredits science journalism. Maybe it does, though sometimes I wonder if people don’t necessarily turn to science and especially technology journalism less for relevant depictions of public health-related issues, and more for doses of optimism. Even worse, though, the hype cycle warps public understanding of both science and health.

Optogenetics is a neat research technique. If a scientist wants to get excited about it, that’s great. Louis Pasteur once got excited about basic research, too. We need that. But a journalist has a different job, and for a journalist to cover optogenetics as something that could have direct or indirect health applications in the near future (1) — and, in the process, to *not* write about other public health-relevant research — misportrays the state of the science, and does a disservice to other issues or research that might have been covered. (2)

Those types of stories also bely a larger problem: The appetite of our public culture for (often tech-centric) narratives of progress and imminent improvement. An entire industry exists to tell fables of this sort, which we repeat to ourselves endlessly even as America spends far more on both biomedical research and health care than any other developed country in the world, yet has far, far worse health.

To this point, one might counter that spending on early-stage biomedical research is independent of health care costs (3), much less outcomes, and that we ought to pursue many avenues of research, of which tools like optogenetics are just one. I certainly agree to the latter, and personally think far too little is spent on nutrition, lifestyle and child care-based research applications — on all those things that are orders of magnitude less sexy, and orders of magnitude more immediately useful, than optogenetics.

Gee-whiz sci-tech coverage of early-stage research distracts us from what we already know. Inasmuch as there’s limited funding available for research, it also detracts from other, equally valuable research (4). And … here the journalist in me would like to write a kicker, and I haven’t got one, except to say that issues like this are precisely why I’ve stopped writing about health except on very rare occasions, when policy and science align or I’m able to spend a lot of time reporting and contextualizing.

(1) I.e., as John pointed out, could have consequences in the treatment of neurological disorders for which the underlying neurology is poorly understood, and may differ profoundly between humans and the animals used as models of their diseases.

This might seem a pessimistic assessment, but a science journalist’s perspective is one in which, on a daily basis, researchers or their institutional communications officers advertise medical breakthroughs. After a few years of this in my case, or a few decades in John’s, how else do you respond except to say, “Get back to me when you’re done with Phase III trials?”

(2) It also affects the funding of science: Researchers whose work is widely covered in the popular press have an easier time getting funded. And, arguably, rewards journals for favoring new-tools-and-methods-centered research over translation and application. Yes, all these things are needed. But right now the balance is out of whack.

(3) Yes, hospitals & the health industry jack up prices in sometimes near-criminal ways. But sometimes drugs and procedures are just damn expensive. I don’t know how much optogenetics-based treatments might cost, but a journalist has an ethical obligation to ask exactly that question.

(4) It’s worth taking a moment to remember that the NIH budget is something like five times bigger than the National Science Foundation’s, which pretty much covers everything that’s not narrowly biomedical — but often has very real public health implications, too.