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Why scientific research is often a strange combination of secrecy and openness

Albino_Redwood.jpg

As previously discussed on Scope, scientists at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz have launched a project to sequence the genome of the "Albino Redwood," an illusive and fragile genetic mutation of the Coast Redwood. The intent of the project is to decode the white evergreen's DNA in an effort to better understand its physiology.

But, as many involved in scientific studies know, it will be some time before the researchers' results are released to the public. In a KQED blog post today, Stanford geneticist Barry Starr, PhD, explains why such projects are often highly secretive in the beginning:

This isn't the fault of many of the scientists doing the research. I remember wanting to shout my latest results from the mountaintops as soon as I got them. Lots of scientists I have talked to feel the same way.

The problem has more to do with how science is funded. It simply isn’t designed to allow incremental progress to become public.

Scientists rely on the federal government for most of their funding. The NIH, NSF, DOE, and a few other agencies supply the lion's share of research dollars.

Labs are awarded these grants based on the work they have done. There is absolutely no incentive for sharing their work early. In fact, sharing work too soon can cost you grant money and maybe even (eventually) your lab.

Starr goes on to suggest ways in which the research-funding system could be revised so that study findings are released in a more timely manner. But, in the end, he requests that the public be patient with science. At a time when instant gratification is the norm, perhaps waiting for comprehensive study results rather than demanding incremental updates is a prudent approach.

Previously: Solving the genetic mystery of the albino redwood and Sequencing the genome of the rare albino redwood tree
Photo by Alex Nelson

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