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In his 2008 book Scientific Freedom, the scientist and author Donald Braben claimed, somewhat controversially, that the 20th century had been transformed because scientists were free to explore the boundaries of their respective disciplines, unhindered by the need for short-term results and the deadening process of peer review. Prof Braben argued that science had been shackled in recent decades, leading to a decline in the rate of technological progress. He quoted a Nobel prize winner as saying “innovation comes only from the assault on the unknown”. His point was that scientists today were not only fighting with their hands tied but often in battles not worth winning.
The intriguing question is whether the glimmer of light that is the new vaccine in the dark tunnel of Covid-19 is evidence that proves Prof Braben’s thesis right, or confounds its predictions. The public health emergency requires immediate life-and-death decisions where speed, rather than efficacy, is the overriding concern. Regulators have allowed the normally distinct phases of a drug trial programme to occur at the same time. Scientists are not waiting to publish work in journals, opting instead to share their work online without it being peer-reviewed. (Even with peer review, the Lancet retracted a Covid-19 paper after iffy data came to light.)
Vaccines can take years to be ready for use. But by turbocharging science we are on the brink of a breakthrough. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech say individuals in a large-scale trial experienced more than 90% fewer cases of symptomatic Covid-19 with their vaccine than those who received a placebo. Many questions about the vaccine – who it protects, for how long, and from what – remain unanswered.
The vaccine deploys bits of genetic code, rather than bits of the virus itself. This messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, uses synthetic genetic material to cause the body to create a protein from the virus; the immune system then recognises the virus and learns to attack it. Imperial College’s Robin Shattock thinks his team’s mRNA-based vaccine will probably be so cheap and scalable that it could treat the world’s population. None of this would have happened if in 2005 two scientists, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had not figured out a way of slipping the mRNA into cells without tripping the body’s defences. Both now work with BioNTech.
Progress is slowed as well as protected by the tedious processes of peer review. But it has been stifled by the unwillingness of governments and companies to fund technology that doesn’t lead to commercial advantage. No mRNA vaccines have been approved, perhaps because they were mostly developed for diseases of the poor. Instead, mRNA may be a scientific arrow looking for a Covid-19-shaped target. The bullseye would be hit by ending a paralysing pandemic while boosting big pharma’s bottom line. Corporates do not normally make world-altering discoveries, because they are not sufficiently interested in identifying a technology’s outsized impacts, nor in liberating scientists. Prof Braben is right to want more scientific mavericks. But the profit motive won’t find or foster them.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on scientific progress: stifled by the profit motive | Editorial | Opinion