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The Black Hole

The Least Work Principle and Catalysing from Complacency

This short blog entry argues that when looking at the relationship or science and society, the majority of scientists only see (and avoid) the energy barrier in front of them and fail to imagine and strive toward the products on the other side. There are of course exceptions to the rule and this article hopes to inspire such visionary thinking. It contends that the products, similar to those in a chemical reaction, will provide a state that will in their own time lead to less energy expenditure for scientists.

BY DAVID KENT | FEB 21 2010

A high school geology teacher once explained to me a guiding philosophy for his life which seemed quite confusing at the time – he called it “The least work principle” which stated that one should always aspire to expending the least amount of effort to get an outcome. I thought “Great, I have a teacher telling me that his mission in life is to be lazy, what an inspiration!”… However, over the years, it has proven itself again and again as a pretty amazing and simple philosophy not centered on laziness, but on being efficient. Life is alarmingly short and we should really be focused on getting the most value for the least amount of work so we can do more things in the end (without sacrificing quality of life of course!).

Now… I want to bring you back to high school (if you took chemistry) – though this might be the first time you’ve had chemistry used to make something easier to understand. One of the basic properties of molecules is that they will naturally exist in the state that requires the least amount of energy. With energy on the y axis below, you can see that the best place to be is on the right hand side (products). To get there from starting materials, however, you need to go through a transition period that temporarily requires more energy.

This short blog entry argues that when looking at the relationship or science and society, the majority of scientists only see (and avoid) the energy barrier in front of them and fail to imagine and strive toward the products on the other side. There are of course exceptions to the rule and this article hopes to inspire such visionary thinking. It contends that the products, similar to those in a chemical reaction, will provide a state that will in their own time lead to less energy expenditure for scientists.

A simple example to illustrate this point is when a small group of scientists took it upon themselves to change things:
In 1990, concomitant with the laboratory research endeavors of the Human Genome Project, a major portion of funding was allocated that surprised many as a budget line in a research project: The Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program whose function and purpose were:

• To anticipate and address the implications for individuals and society of mapping and sequencing the human genome.
• To examine the ethical, legal and social consequences of mapping and sequencing the human genome.
• To stimulate public discussion of the issues.
• To develop policy options that would assure that the information be used to benefit individuals and society.

The public understanding of DNA, genes, proteins, and numerous derivatives grew exponentially in the 1990s through the work of many scientists involved in ELSI funded projects.

The results?
Students now enter high schools, undergraduate and graduate programs with a much increased base knowledge of genetics.
Physicians, patients, and donors are excited by, and reasonably comprehend, the idea and hopes of personalized medicine through genetics.
Granting agencies and governments are very excited to fund projects and entire institutes (e.g.: The Michael Smith GSC in Vancouver and the Sanger Institute in England) focused on dissecting genetic information.

The cost and time of spelling out an individual’s genome has been incredibly decreased

…it took 4 years for the international Human Genome Project to produce the first billion base pairs of sequence and less than 4 months to produce the second billion base pairs. In the month of January 2003, the DOE team sequenced 1.5 billion bases
~ US Dept. of Energy

According to the Wall Street Transcript the cost of a genome in 2010 will be $10,000 (as opposed to the 13 year, multi-million dollar original human genome) and will continue to decline as technology improves even further. The $1000 genome is in sight.
If you could jump in your telephone booth and transport to 1990 and ask a genetics professor if he would be part of an ELSI lecture series to explain what DNA is and offered the 2010 state of genetics as a return, my guess is he would strap on his crampons and be over the complacency hump within seconds.

Of course, it is extremely difficult to attribute all of this progress to the ELSI initiatives, but the unbridled enthusiasm that accompanied the human genome project, the number of university Genetics programs that cropped up across the world, and the enormous amounts of public and private monies that have accompanied it surely benefited from the ELSI program which allowed many larger discussions to take place outside of the laboratory.

Such dissemination of information is critical to moving technology ahead with great speed and acceptance and tomorrow I will publish an entry on relatively easy ways for grad students, post docs, researchers, and professors to promote the public science enterprise through public policy and information dissemination.

Beth will follow up in a week’s time with an entry on how these individuals can help encourage an understanding of and an engagement with science in schools across the country and with the public.

Until then, look beyond the hill in front of you!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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