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I often wonder why someone chooses to become a biomedical research scientist. Many years of training, long hours in the lab, delayed gratification because most experiments fail. Cons appear to outweigh the pros.

What about the potential for glory? Get into science for glory. Is that a good thing? Doesn’t that road inevitably lead to becoming a SINO (Scientist In Name Only)? Rather than glory, I got into science because of insatiable curiosity about Nature but somewhere along the way, as it started to become a career, I unwittingly ended up a SINO. That is until I got out of the mouse business. What follows expands on this deliberately provocative proposition.

Today the mouse is center stage in biomedical research. As transgenics (inserting a gene) and knock-outs (knocking out a gene) became routine since the 1990s, the mouse business of biomedical research boomed. A biochemist plodding away at defining the role of a signaling molecule in a particular biochemical pathway? Perform in vitro cell culture knock-downs to define its role? “Sure, but you know that alone won’t cut it. In order to convince that this molecule is really important in this pathway the way you claim it is, you have to develop a relevant in vivo model”. Result? SINOs who have no business being anywhere near a living creature, let alone be responsible for its welfare, were suddenly drafting their ASPs (Animal Study Protocols), submitting them to their IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees), who of course rubber-stamped them in short order, and lo and behold, a bunch of SINOs doing practically whatever they want to hapless mice. Hence mouse at the center of the basic biomedical research enterprise.

What about applied biomedical research? The mouse paradigm of basic biomedical research flowed right through. Today, late stage therapeutic failures are the norm, and not the exception (Page on nature.com). Clearly mouse is not a good model for human physiology and disease. Why did it end up center stage in our biomedical research enterprise? Why is it overwhelmingly the required pre-clinical model for drug and vaccine development? How did this aspect of the current biomedical research enterprise come about?

We have to examine the context. As research spending exponentially expanded post-World War II, science changed from a vocation to a stable, reasonably well-paying career. When we view something as a career rather than as a vocation, our choices and decisions tend to favor the practical over the suitable or optimal. In that light, the mouse became handily expedient. Cheap, hardy, easy to breed and feed. At this point, it becomes reasonable to ask if vocational scientists don’t have a say in the organizing principles of the scientific enterprise. They probably do but they are also probably a minority. Being a minority doesn’t preclude their becoming a dominant force dictating the course. That didn’t happen. Why? Those who practice a vocation are less likely to become gate keepers. The joy of the project, science in this case, comes not from the gate keeping but from the doing.

For the history of our time to be accurately documented, it needs to be rightfully acknowledged as a time of needless and mindless propagation and massacre of research animals, not for scientific progress so much as de facto career progress. What could be potentially world-changing science? Science that can in good conscience defend itself in the moral arena. If wishes were horses and pigs could fly, I’d be thrilled if in my life-time, we openly acknowledge that the mouse is center stage in biomedical research, not because it is scientifically the most suitable, but because it became most expedient in furthering the current biomedical research enterprise, and then having done so, move sharply away from such an odious paradigm. We have the technology to do it. We just need to muster the courage to do so. Shouldn’t why we do something be just as important as what and how we do it? Isn’t that world-changing?

Post by Tirumalai Kamala:

Inglorious Science:
How the cult of expediency undermines biomedical research

Inglorious Science:
How the cult of expediency undermines biomedical research