As a frontline healthcare worker and proud COVE trial participant, I was unblinded today. To my relief, I was both declared immunized and not a hypochondriac (as some “kind” friends had wondered – helpfully adding that I might have gotten the placebo). It felt like a tremendous weight was off my shoulders, in this dark, heavy time of death and disease. As I gave thanks to the trialists, the NIAID, the companies that made the vaccine and the Federal Operation Warpspeed that made this medical miracle my wonderful reality, I began the search for where the vaccine came from.
The story reveals a cautionary tale as to how we nearly did not get these amazingly effective tools. As with all things, the reality is that scientific discovery is predicated on funding. Owing to the prestige (and supposed independence/flexibility) of it, most scientists prefer to stay in academic environs. Funding comes for a variety of peer-reviewed sources, University endowments, national and international societies, and, most significantly the NIH (and some other agencies) a.k.a Big Science. Although notionally impartial and encouraging of innovation, the experience and story of Katalin Kariko (and God know how many others) tells differently.
A rash of stories in the media highlight how an immigrant, previously academic scientist, who was the focal point of the discovery that made this vaccine possible, was rejected time and again by Big Science in her pursuit of this exact discovery. As a nearly former scientist, this tale is one that I have seen time and again. Big Science is predicated on who you know, and how your work conforms to dogma of “established” science. People that are “unknown” or have novel (heretic) ideas are seldom tolerated and never funded. It is both a wonder, and a blessing, that Dr. Kariko managed to carry her work to fruition despite this consistently adverse environment.
Time and again, mediocre science, bereft of novelty, harvests rich rewards from Big Science, whereas true innovation is felt to be “too risky” to support. This runs contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry. Institutionalized religion draws power from dogma and hierarchy, and Big Science is no different. Any challenge to either is met with being ignored, excommunicated, exiled and (if possible) death. In other words, Big Science is the new Inquisition. Cloaked in the respectability of academic titles and degrees, these are the same dogmatic and mediocre thinkers who are in science for the prestige and not the passion of discovery, to whom novelty and breaking the mold are anathema, and woe betide any who speak to challenge them.
As someone currently carrying funding from Big Science, is this ingratitude? Bitterness, at the small share of my spoils? Jealousy at those who are better endowed than I?
Is it all this bad? Is there no good in the system?
Or maybe, I’m just an honest taxpayer with a unique view of how billions of tax dollars of an unwitting public are divided up by Big Science acolytes.
Like many good acts of religious orders, there is tremendous good that is done by Big Science. However, over time, our rate of discovery is slowing. As we grow more content and established, our output has increased but the effects of this increased output have not.
As a publicly funded enterprise, Big Science has to be accountable to the people that pay for this. By chanting scientific hymns beyond the understanding of a lay-person and a few light-shows in test tubes, a dazzled public stands by while Big Science divides the spoils. As a scientist with a commitment to study, science and discovery and not, a blind loyalty to the Big Science establishment, and as a responsible citizen I need to speak up.
As of today, over 300,000 people are dead from this virus. That this vaccine may save untold more and was almost a non-entity is a painful reminder of how essential is our need for major reform. If you can, share this widely, talk about it, send it to the media, the Congress, the Senate and your leaders. Tell them that Big Science may not be the panacea they think it is. We need to salute heroes like Dr. Kariko. And we need to be able to use our tax dollars to support the untold others that Big Science rejects in their unholy desire to enforce conformity and dogma.