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Swetha Chandrasekar

Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Is science just imagination in a straitjacket?

This week in my Bioelectricity class, we listened to an NPR interview with Frances Ashcroft. Ashcroft is a British scientist who made a discovery in 1984 that allows neonatal diabetes patients to take pills as insulin supplements instead of injections. In her interview, as she discussed her thoughts on the scientific process and developing her theory, she referenced a quote by Richard Feynman, is a renowned American theoretical physicist.
"Science is imagination in a straitjacket."
Many scientists would argue that science does not restrict imagination, but rather promotes it. How is it that a well renowned scientist and thinker like Feynman, could feel confined when seeking answers in science? Is science a vehicle for imagination or is it used to tie down imagination with facts? What experience could have caused him to have this opinion? Does science truly restrict the imagination as Feynman suggests, or is science a vehicle for imagination?


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  • Feb 12 2013: I spent some time doing research in a microbiology lab as an undergrad. At one point, I was working with a postdoc who was submitting her first grant proposal. My postdoc was obviously both very nervous; this was her first grant proposal on a project that she designed herself. Unfortunately, she did not end up getting the grant. However, she wasn't that surprised. When I asked why, she simply responded that her ideas were too "radical". That there wasn't enough supplementary data collected by other scientists that can verify that her project would work, or even be worthwhile.

    Thats the regrettable, under-reported aspect of research. When projects are this expensive, grant committees have the power to essentially decide what gets done within their entire field. On one hand, this is understandable; why spend $50,000 looking into a gene that may have nothing to do at all with cancer or its cure. But on the same token, that gene may very well be the key to curing ALL cancers. We don't know. And unfortunately, a lot of "safe" projects with limited potential get grant money whereas the risky, but high reward projects get nothing.

    In my lab, researchers would have one main project that was approved for grant money. However, the big "grant" supported projects weren't really anything more than testing a hypothesis that you KNOW was right (you wouldn't have gotten the grant if there was a hint of doubt). But the side projects was were the real science was really done. This is where we asked "what happens when we do this". This is where the "huh that's funny" occurs. All of this is done with leftover grant money not used for the main project. Nothing big and risky (like isolating/manipulation genes) can really be done as a side project. And unfortunately, something big is what we may need.

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