A couple of months ago, I wrote that all scientific research is important. I stand by that, with the clarification that scientific ethics are a consideration separate from importance. Scientific research is important even when it merely confirms what one might have assumed.
Late night comedians take a seemingly pointless scientific study and then ask something like “Hey, scientists, how are you coming along curing cancer?”
In response to my article, a lot of people mentioned Dr. Mehmet Oz (R-New Jersey?), who at one time had legitimate scientific credibility. The bad doctor conducted experiments in which several dogs were killed with no apparent rationale other than to be cruel. That checks out for a Trump-endorsed candidate for senator.
But… who supplied the dogs to Dr. Oz? Did that supplier ask Oz what the dogs were for? And if so, did Oz respond with some legitimate-sounding scientific reason?
They must have. The experiments were conducted under the aegis of Columbia University with Oz as the principal investigator.
When I did an experiment at Wayne State University that involved humans listening to music, I still had to submit paperwork to a review committee. I had already been granted funding for the experiment, at that point I needed someone else to say that my proposed experiment was ethical.
I made sure to specify that the music would be played at a reasonable volume. The committee asked me to make a couple of small changes. So I made the indicated changes and went ahead with the experiment.
If I recall correctly, that part of the process took only a couple of weeks. I’m told it would have taken a whole lot longer if my experiment had involved giving people drugs, or if it had involved animals like dogs or mice in any capacity.
Kylie Cheung’s article for Jezebel has plenty of stomach-churning details of the cruel treatment of dogs by Oz’s team, but nothing about why the experiments were authorized in the first place.
Maybe Oz’s experiments had the potential to give us a better understanding of cancer, or something else that late night comedians consider worthwhile for scientists to concern themselves with. But Oz’s research methodology was so sloppy that the experiments yielded no usable data. More than three hundred dogs died with no benefit to mankind or dogkind.
That was more than a decade ago. More recently, other scientists revived a virus from thousands of years ago from Arctic ice. That required a different response from the late night comedians, as they couldn’t attack the study for being frivolous or unimportant. Instead, Stephen Colbert asked “Why the f*** would you do that?”
If anyone on Colbert’s staff read Margaret Osborne’s article for Smithsonian, they would have seen the answer to that question.
As climate change accelerates the melting of ice in the Arctic, carbon dioxide emissions, habitat loss and rising sea levels aren’t the only threats humans face. Scientists have shown that ancient “zombie viruses” frozen for thousands of years can reawaken with rising temperatures.
In a paper posted on the preprint server bioRxiv in November, scientists detail how they revived several of these viruses from the Siberian permafrost. The oldest is a 48,500-year-old pandoravirus, which set a world record for the age of a restored virus, co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a genomicist at Aix-Marseille University in France, tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page.
That’s why the scientists had to do that.
If an old virus couldn’t be revived, or even if it could be revived but only with a lot of carefully targeted effort unlikely to happen naturally, that would have been good news, even though we still have plenty of other bad effects of climate change to worry about. But since it is possible to revive viruses preserved in the melting ice, then we need to be prepared.
This line of research of course brings up ethical considerations that just didn’t apply to my study of people listening to music, nor to my study of people looking at color swatches.
A revived virus could be used as the basis for a new and deadlier biological weapon, for example. Imagine Iran, or perhaps likelier, Russia, sending an expedition to the Arctic with the express purpose of harvesting antique viruses.
The open thread question: To what extent should scientists consider the potential applications of their findings?