Do inventors get enough respect in science?

High school students at Oakland City University work on extracting their DNA from a detergent, salt and ethanol solution during criminal justice career exploration day.
High school students at Oakland City University work on extracting their DNA from a detergent, salt and ethanol solution during criminal justice career exploration day.
AP Photo/The Evansville Courier & Press, Erin McCracken

Bluntly challenged by a combative conference attendee to tell him a single thing that would make him find science interesting, Ting Wu talked about inventors.

A professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, Wu explained that biologists have long been teasing out the complicated details of how biological systems work. But now they are applying that knowledge to create biological machines capable of all kinds of unforeseen functions. The audience member conceded that she had caught his interest.

When people talk about the monetary value of science, invention nearly always comes up. Politicians celebrate science’s ability to generate useful new technologies, drugs, and products. Wu said in an interview that she’s also seen the power of invention to capture the imagination in the classroom. Talk to high school students about DNA, the code of life that holds clues about human disease and evolution, and you receive their polite attention. Tell them that scientists are using DNA to make new things—folding it into origami-like structures that could encapsulate drugs or building customized organisms—and attention turns to interest.

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“One piece consistently always gets them excited, and more excited than anything else—which is inventing new things,” Wu said. “Facts are sometimes interesting. Explanation or description of a puzzle is kind of interesting. But letting them see how scientists are taking a biological mechanism, and inventing new things—I can see them sit up.”

Wu has become increasingly interested in a disconnect she sees between what sparks people’s interest about science and the sorts of projects that scientists are encouraged to do as they go through their training and launch their careers. At least in Wu’s experience, tinkering and building new technologies and tools that could enable all new kinds of biological questions to be asked and answered often seems to play second fiddle to the process of unraveling the biological underpinnings of a disease or process, which is the kind of work that often wins awards and gets published in science journals.

Despite the obvious value of invention to society and science education, Wu worries that inventors have the deck stacked against them when trying to make their way through the traditional scientific education framework.

“What I have found in my experience in science is inventors are not given the same kind of respect as having solved a disease, for example,” Wu said. “I’ve actually heard comments as severe as, ‘That’s just an invention; they haven’t done anything with it.’ ”

Wu runs a laboratory at Harvard that focuses on fruit fly genetics, where scientists probe biological processes, but also tinker with new approaches. Her husband, Harvard professor of genetics George Church, is well known for his focus on invention and technology development, creating new techniques and spinning off companies that enable faster, better, or cheaper ways to sequence the genome or edit it.

Of course, there are labs and institutions where a culture of innovation thrives, including MIT or Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. But Wu said she has sometimes feels that the prevailing bias in biomedical research has been toward seeing biological problems quite narrowly, with the primary challenge to tease out the particulars of biology.

One of Wu’s graduate students, Brian Beliveau, said he came to the laboratory expecting to pursue traditional science research.

“I was interested in gene regulation, and I came here fully expecting to do basic biology,” Beliveau said. “I think there’s a premium put by a lot of people on solving a biological problem.”

But there was a partly-finished project going on in the laboratory that was more oriented toward technology development; improving the capabilities and efficiency of a process used to label stretches of DNA. The idea was to scale up the ability to paint large swaths of DNA, providing a cheap, easy method that could be used to better visualize and study portions of chromosomes that carry genes.

“I thought, ‘I’ll play around with this stuff,’ ” while working on other problems, Beliveau said. “It’s been a lot of fun ever since.”

Beliveau was successful in designing a new method for painting chromosomes. He hopes to use it to do something more traditionally biological, but he’d also be happy to see it used by lots of scientists.

“I’m motivated by a biological question we fundamentally can’t ask, because we don’t have the means to do it,” Beliveau said.

Wu said she has been glad to see a flourishing growth in scientific journals that will publish studies that simply describe new methods or technologies. Still, she questions whether the shift to give more respect to inventors is happening rapidly enough, given how important it is—both in enabling new kinds of science and drawing people toward science in the first place.

“I think our world moves forward on inventions, and yet I think what happens is these kids I see in high school—something happens between high school or graduate school or maybe a faculty position,” where the emphasis drifts toward a more traditional biological track, Wu said. “What I’m sorry to see is the diminishing of kids who might have just gone on to invent.”