From the Editor in Chief: Collective and Individual Progress

Feb 01, 2006
Volume 19, Issue 2

Laura Bush
At a recent scientific conference, a group gathered around a table to compare experiences. Participants, in turn, asked their colleagues how to avoid problem X or how to resolve challenge Y. In most cases, those responding said, "I have found method Z to work, but not all the time." In other words, it depends. Hearing about others' approaches is helpful, but each problem still must be solved individually.

That is how science proceeds: through both collective and individual progress. Once in a long while, a breakthrough occurs, and everyone learns from it; yet each individual still must undergo extensive trial and error to understand how to apply that new knowledge or technique. When Cohen and Boyer filed their patent application in 1979 for restriction endonucleases, biotechnology took a leap forward. But everyone still had to go back to their laboratories to try to apply what Cohen and Boyer had figured out.

Such individual experiments also serve to test the new science, and often lead to new advances. It's like the way an amoeba moves: it extends a pseudopod, and gradually the body catches up. Then, another foot goes out.

I wonder if some scientists wish there were an easier way. In online role-playing games, some players take shortcuts: they pay others to play for them until their characters acquire certain skill levels. Others pay real money to buy virtual gold for their characters, instead of slogging through hours of playing time to earn the gold themselves.

Of course, those players are cheating, at least in my view. Not that there aren't times when I wish I could do something similar. Could I pay a freelancer to write my editorial when I am stumped? Probably. But it wouldn't be very satisfying, and I would neither gain from the process nor contribute anything to the world.

Fortunately, most scientists want to play the game themselves, or they wouldn't have chosen their profession. After all, some 90% of all experiments fail, so it's not a field for someone who wants easy success. Persevering against such odds requires incredible optimism and dedication. That's good, because such perseverance leads to scientific advances — for both individual and collective progress.

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