Discovering a Way to a Continued Future

Someone recently said “if you’ve come prepared to defend a position, you’re not here for a discussion.” In the spirit of a continuing discussion, with a goal of productive change within the society rather than the defense of entrenched positions, I offer this response to the recent column by President Niels Kuster that was followed by an article coauthored by Former Presidents Mays Swicord and Asher Sheppard, and by Professor Quirino Balzano.

I served as President of this Society in 1991, immediately before Mays Swicord. In my address to the Annual Business Meeting during my term, and in a subsequent Presidents’ column (see BEMS NL # 98 [Jan/Feb 1991], and BEMS NL #101 [Jul/Aug 1991]), I described what I thought were two cultures in the Society, one based in biological sciences and the other in the physical sciences, that had different cultural training in scientific research. I expressed hope that scientists from both cultures would acknowledge their differences and use them synergistically to advance the science.

Since many of you may not have those back issues of the newsletter, here is the relevant text from issue #98:

“Listening to one recent discussion, I sensed an exaggerated juxtaposition of the conflicting reference frames ingrained in the physical scientists and biologists. For physical scientists, an unusual or unexpected result indicates that an artifact probably occurred, the results need to be discarded, and the experiment repeated. When repeat experiments produce the same result, a more conscious effort is placed on finding the cause of the result. In many cases, the results are never published even if no artifact can be found, unless the result can be explained in terms of current knowledge of physical mechanisms. This hesitation to publish is imposed by traditions for rules of evidence and methodological expectations of physical scientists.”

“In contrast, although biologists carefully examine possible causes of artifact when unexpected results are observed, if the results hold up upon replication and close scrutiny, there is a communal acceptance to publish. Perhaps there is no disciplinary taboo against publishing such findings because it is recognized that there are many unknowns in biological sciences; surprises are expected.”

My reference frame was established in a biophysics graduate school program in the 1960s led by Ernest Pollard that was funded by NASA to identify the environmental extremes under which life could exist. With a bachelor’s degree in physics, I was introduced to experimental biology for the first time in graduate school. My first semester microbiology course opened my eyes to the amazing sensitivity and diversity in biological responses, particularly for the role of mutations in microbial societies. This enlightenment continued as I learned more about biology. Although I studied the effects of ionizing radiation on DNA, I remember being asked in one of my oral exams to describe how microbial life could exist and thrive in the hotsprings in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA, when the conditions are so detrimental to life. In preparation for that exam, I had read that week’s Science magazine that contained a lead article describing the latest findings that answered that question, namely, the microbes had increased G-C content in their DNA (three hydrogen bonds for those bases) and increased di-sulphide bonds in proteins, which made those molecules more resistant to the normally denaturing conditions in the hotsprings; there were other changes as well. This ability to adapt to harsh thermal and high salt environments was not understood before, but the evidence of the existence of living microbes in that environment had by that time been accepted.

It is this biological mindset of discovery, verification and investigation that has guided the research I’ve subsequently conducted, by being observant of unusual or unexpected biological responses, particularly patterns that give clues to as yet undiscovered mechanistic phenomena. Once repeatable responses are obtained that were not caused by obvious factors, it is necessary to characterize the treatment conditions and physiological state under which the biological response occurs. With this more complete information, it may be possible to make hypothesizes regarding possible, additional uncontrolled variables (in one case, the possible influence of the static magnetic field) that might provide more clues for theoreticians (both in physical and biological reference frames) to speculate on the underlying bases for the observed responses and ultimately to determine underlying modes of action and eventually mechanisms of action.

The value in determining all the parameters, biological and physical, that can influence a biological process is that scientists would then be guided by the need to describe and control those parameters in order to produce results that stand a chance of being reproduced by scientists in other locations using different equipment. Otherwise, without replication the scientific debate would degenerate into observations analogous to those of the proverbial 6 blind people allowed to touch an elephant on different parts of its anatomy and exclaiming to the world what an elephant “looks” like.

I read an article describing a rebellion recently launched in science education, with the support of the US National Science Foundation, to change how students learn about how science works. The article notes that traditional education holds that all scientific experimentation is required to follow the classical scientific method (typically taught as a 4 or 5 step recipe) to produce irrefutable results. Two sentences in the article caught my eye: “ … science cannot be oversimplified to make a good story. Data that get in the way of neat conclusions cannot simply be wiped away.” The website developed by this group, www.understandingscience. org, calls this approach “discovery science,” and stresses the importance, especially for scientists in training, of this iterative, dynamic process, as an essential component in scientific research. Their emphasis is on genuine awe and inspiration at observing the unexpected and on personal growth that comes with that experience.

On reflection, I’ve realized that there is now another division in the Society, beyond the one I identified in 1991, which we still see. This second division is between the culture of discovery science and the culture of classical science. This division is prevalent not just in the Society, but also more widely in scientific studies in general. For example, note the recent US National Academy Science report on future research needs in bioelectromagnetics. This report’s conclusions do not acknowledge critical clues offered by series of independent, published reports that don’t fit neat conclusions, such as weak field effects. Since this NAS report had a substantial input from European scientists, the problem is not just one that exists in the US. In fact, much in vitro and in vivo research is no longer funded in the bioelectromagnetics area in spite of intriguing published effects that practically beg to be further explored.

The outcome of this trend is to denigrate and thus deny funding to discovery science. I remember the excitement I felt in graduate school to be allowed to perform discovery discovery science, that is, to follow my intuition to explore the treatment and response spaces surrounding a process to understand them better so that I would be able to be more focused and efficient in the project I was doing. Our Society has greatly benefited from discovery-based research, as is attested to by the d’Arsonval awards given to Dr. Ross Adey and to Dr. Nancy Wertheimer for their discovery science accomplishments. The freedom to perform discovery-based research has been essentially lost in the current research funding and management paradigms.

I propose that another benefit of discovery science is that it can provide the basis to get out of this muddle we see in bioelectromagnetics research with respect to acceptance of low-intensity biological effects and perhaps in the broader scientific research enterprise as well. Once it is acknowledged that there are biological responses to EMF that cannot be explained by current modes or mechanisms of action, then there is hope that representatives from both sides can meet on an equal footing and with joint respect to devise ways to investigate the phenomena.