Is the Human Ego good for Science?
I have just finished reading the fascinating book "The Emperor of Scent" by Chandler Burr. It starts off describing the world of perfume with a focus on Luca Turin, a man with the unusual talent of being able to review perfumes with great eloquence, conjuring up beautiful metaphors of experiencing their scent.
The book then takes an unexpected turn into the description of Turin's theory about the mechanism of olfaction. There is some truly interesting science there, such as Turin's discovery of a binding site for NADPH and another for zinc on a protein thought to mediate smell. This supports his hypothesis that the protein functions as an electron tunneling spectroscope detecting differences in vibrational modes. Further evidence is provided by comparing the different smells of deuterated molecules like acetophenone and the similarity of the stench of boranes with thiols, which share similar IR spectral bands. This idea is at odds with the conventional view that molecular shape is responsible for the activity of odorants. (For a summary of Turin's theory I would suggest watching his recent TED talk "The Science of Scent" and his Wikipedia entry)
This is all very interesting stuff and would have made for a good read but what makes this a truly fascinating story is that Burr spends the rest of the book detailing the way the scientific community responded to his findings. As Turin waits a year to finally get rejected by Nature, the reviews, rebuttals and other communications with the editor are examined to expose the intense emotional components that can arise from the peer review process. The author even follows Turin to conferences and reports in detail how various members of the audience react and comment during his talk and at informal meetings over lunch.
People who are not in science may find this disturbing. All too often science operates like the judicial system, where winning can take on more importance than finding the truth.
The fundamental problem is conflict of interest. If you have patents or run a company it may not in your financial best interest to look under every rock, except as required by law. If you have built your career on a certain theory it may not be in your professional best interest to open every can of worms. Burr actually wrote a chapter explaining why the book appeared to be so one sided: it was hard to get detailed comments from Turin's detractors because, although they disagreed with his theory, they had not read his paper and did not have time to do so.
But Turin was really not that different in his conflict of interest related to ego. There are descriptions of him reading articles in a state of dread and delaying experiments for fear that he might be proved wrong. Still, I like to root for the underdog, so the book did have me hoping that he would be vindicated.
If most scientists are motivated by ego, is it possible to do egoless science - and what would that look like?
For starters I think that keeping a true Open Notebook (All Content shared Immediately) does a lot to keep your ego in check. If you report on what you find, when you find it, you don't have time to succumb to the temptation to cherry pick results and embellish the story of what happened.
Another trend that I think will emerge in the next few years and will change the way science gets done is machine-driven science. It will probably prove too much trouble to take into account a researcher's ego and career objectives when coding for AI to plan and analyze experiments to solve problems. Just like Turin, a lot of researchers (including myself, especially early in my career) procrastinate doing certain experiments for fear of not liking the outcome. The key again here is making the experimental logs of those machines public in real time.
When I refer to egoless science, I am speaking at the level of experimentation. I am driven by ego, like everyone else. But I have found it more useful to place its focus at the meta level. Instead of taking pride in appearing to run a perfect operation - and of getting high yields for our reactions - I am most pleased when the members of my group do their best to record exactly what happened, as they do science.
And being a strong proponent of Open Science, my ego is linked to those activities. Even though it is somewhat ironic, I do enjoy competing at being as openly collaborative as I can.