Good Open Source this morning

A few thoughts while listening to the latest Open Source podcast, “The CRISPR challenge“.

Isaacson, and to some extent Hurlbut, elided the difference between science and applied science.  Isaacson especially talked about things like curiosity as an absolute good, for example, but that tends to be a feature of the former, not the latter.  Experiments into how the universe works may, but don’t necessarily have to, lead to research and development, design and implementation, commercial distribution, all of which tend to be a separate activity often undertaken by completely separate groups motivated especially by things other than raw curiosity.

Science is not created in a vacuum, but in a manner supported by government, commerce, society in general.  It’s not the heroic individual in a home-basement lab, any more than a CEO is the heroic individual who creates the future.  Most (?) of it is funded by governments as a practical exposition of societal aims, through organizations like the NIH.  Without this funding, the infrastructure that enables people like CRISPR researchers doesn’t exist.

As a counter-example, look at drug chemistry.  R&D into hallucinogens was halted decades ago in the US because society, as represented by their government, decided it was not something they wanted to support.  As such, the research became marginalized and slow.  Not arguing this was the correct outcome, we have a “war on drugs” instead of non-harmful designer drugs from the local pharmacy, but the basic research doesn’t happen just because it can.

Ben Hurlbut is a great find, thanks.  Very thoughtful exposition of the case for more work on our part, to understand how these kinds of development have worked in the past, how people have thought about and talked about it and what we need to consider beyond the stories we’re hearing.  The aside on the US’s enthusiasm for technical fixes rang my bell: the pandemic will be solved by biotech, vaccines and drug resesarch; the food crisis will be solved by GMOs; we can build plant-based beef substitutes to fix the agricultural component of the climate emergency.  In all these cases, the common denominator is that by doing these things we don’t have to change anything about our own behavior or ways of thinking about ourselves, a task for which we have many fewer tools than the technologists.

Lyden’s podcast is one of those tools.  Thanks.

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