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"It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times..."

James Le Fanu, a physician by trade, suggests in a Prospect magazine editorial that "for science this is both the best and the worst of times." It is the "best," he says, because "its research institutions have never been so impressive, its funding never more lavish." But the "worst," he adds, because the scientific achievements "of the recent past have been rather disappointing," when compared with those from the beginning of the 20th century. The author is dismissive of Craig Venter's team's recent work. "Fabricating a basic toolkit of genes and inserting them into a bacterium — at a cost of $40 million and 10 years' work — was technologically ingenious, but the result does less than what the simplest forms of life have been doing for free and in a matter of seconds for the past three billion years," Le Fanu writes. Of genomics research, Le Fanu says that investigators have yet to put their data to use. "The usual response is to acknowledge that perhaps things have turned out to be more complex than originally presumed, but to insist these are still 'early days' to predict what might yet emerge," he says, adding that:

Biologists could, if they so wish, spell out the genomes of each of the millions of species with which we share the planet but that would only confirm they are composed of several thousand similar genes that 'code' for the cells from which all living things are made. Meanwhile, the really interesting question of how they determine the unique form and attributes of such diverse creatures would remain unresolved. ... At a time when cosmologists can reliably infer what happened in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of continents to the nearest centimetre, it seems extraordinary that geneticists can’t tell us why humans are so different from flies.

Zen Faulkes at NeuroDojo is not quite sure whether Le Fanu set out to make a valid argument against modern science, or simply "an active effort to troll the science blogosphere." As for Le Fanu's claims of "lavish" research spending, Faulkes is not amused. "Yes, it's so incredibly lavish that funding rates for most American federal agencies are way less than one funded proposal out of ten applications; so that good researchers devote weeks on end to revising and resubmitting in hopes of finding the resources to carry out their research," Faulkes writes. In response to the Prospect piece, Faulkes says that "science usually advances incrementally," adding that "it would, indeed, be quite sad if the best science could do would be do the same simple experiment a million times. Fortunately, this is not what we do."

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