restricted access In Praise of Smallness—How Can We Return to Small Science?
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IN PRAISE OF SMALLNESS— HOW CAN WE RETURN TO SMALL SCIENCEÌ ERWIN CHARGAFF* I We all know that what is cannot be otherwise. The existence of anything weights the scales most unfairly against everything else that could have been in its place but is not. The only change that we accept benevolently is growth: a bigger gross national product, an expanding trade deficit, more murders in the New York subway, etc. An evergrowing scientific establishment, therefore, seems quite in order. We are imbued with certain false equations but reject others. More scientists: more useful discoveries—that is accepted. More physicians: more sick people—that is rejected. (Recently, when making one of those impermissible remarks, I was rebuked as a cynic. Since I have sometimes referred to myself as a stoic or a skeptic, I seem to be making the round of non-Platonian Greek philosophy, although I am still studying to be an Epicurean.) Those who are below me in age, that is, the vast majority, will probably not even know what I am talking about; a fate, willingly borne, which has accompanied me during my life. They will not understand what I mean when I say that we ought to find ways of reforming our system of scientific investigation, of going back, in part, to the conditions of research that I myself experienced during the early days of my activity. "There is no return," they will say, "and those were bad times anyway; and besides he [meaning me] has not moved in 30 years—so what does he complain about?" Granted, times were bad, they were, in fact, beastly; they have always been beastly. Only now they are a little worse. Still, however, the climate ofresearch was more agreeable, and there was more fresh air for the individual mind to develop, to find his bearings, and to proceed at Based on notes for a lecture given at the Universities of Miami, Toronto, Pennsylvania, and California at Berkeley. ?Professor emeritus of biochemistry, Columbia University. Address: 350 Central Park West, New York, New York 10025. Reprints not available from the author.© 1980 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/80/2303-0131$01.00 370 I Erwin Chargaff ¦ In Praise ofSmallness his own innate speed. There was more freedom in every sense, because everybody, including the competition, was equally indigent. "That is a funny argument," I hear, "Divest ourselves of our riches, eh? Turn into hermits or coenobites?" Nothing of the sort is contemplated. When Schumacher wrote his much-discussed and little-followed book [1], he did not expect to put General Motors out of business. He was looking, he was looking desperately , for an alternative to social and economic conditions that many people consider intolerable. His book was received with some approval and much derision.1 It is disheartening to notice that mankind, purple or blue from suffocation, looks with the utmost scorn upon the few who try to open a window. My purpose in writing these lines is, of course, more modest, and the proposals I shall submit are more limited in scope. The only legitimacy I can claim is that I have been some sort of scientist for quite a while and that I have watched, with increasing dismay and even hopelessness, the ever more rapidly changing scenery of scientific research and also the change in the type of actors who are overcrowding the stage. I have described my position in several earlier publications (e.g., in a recent book [2] and also in an article that appeared in this journal [3]), and I need not restate it here. After a few more or less random remarks about science, and about biology in particular, I shall first briefly review the present scene and then outline my suggestions for a remedy. Readers familiar with my opinion of experts or specialists (see, e.g., [4]), will not be surprised if these lines do not sound like the professional product of a think tank. II Nowadays, when every school of little fishes carries its name and number, we have even ethicists or ethicians, people who supposedly confer ethics, just as the beautician confers beauty. We have, I believe, even scientific ethicists...