Back seat science reading

On the return flight on Monday not only did I have time to write a post, I also found inspiration for this one too.

Expecting to find the airline magazine in the back pocket of the seat, I instead discovered the Jan 6th issue of the THE NEW YORKER. Some very kind person had left it there, obviously a subscriber, their name still affixed to the issue. Never a big fan of this wordy magazine I rifled through and read few small articles. Inside was also a scientific article called THE GENE FACTORY by Michael Specter. I passed on reading the article and wrote the blog instead.

Later that evening I did finally read the article which was focused on B.G.I. in China and their industrialization of gene sequencing. A fascinating read, presented in a manner that balanced some of the controversial aspects (the ownership of Complete Genomics, potential for ill use of the sequencing information for eugenics etc). I did wonder that if it was a US or European company/ organization would it have even been a story worthy of The New Yorker. But because it was China, there might be some nefarious use for what they were doing rather than for the betterment of mankind. The presentation of their giant factories of sequencers and 1000’s of employees seemed almost close to Sci Fi.

I was left thinking again that the way we present science done outside our country is a bit unfair, assuming they are just machines, with no intellect, I think its harsh. Yes the goals of B.G.I. may seem a bit extreme to some, their approach a bit different maybe to how we would do it in the west. But who is to say which is the right way. Yes I do worry about the erosion of US scientific leadership in a field like genomics and ceding it to another nation so readily. If anything the article is a wakeup call. Because the USA lost whole swathes of hi tech manufacturing jobs to Japan etc in the 70’s which then expanded to China, why not lose hi tech science jobs to another nation like China as well. We have already seen medicinal chemistry go that route. What will we be left with if genomics all goes too?

What are the odds I would sit in the one seat on the plane with a copy of a magazine with an article in it I would find relevant to what I do, namely science ? It also made me think airlines should ditch their general boring magazines and just randomly place real magazines like The New Yorker, The Economist (which I do read), with articles on science, art, business etc in the back of the seats. This may be one small way that we can wake up the nation and educate the masses (that travel for pleasure or business) to how a nation like China, that 20 yrs ago was nowhere in a scientific field, could suddenly be a leader.  I think NIH funding of science is only part of the problem, the other part is educating the next generation that science is important if we are to address some of humanities biggest issues like infectious disease, hunger, climate change etc.


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