November 2009

Not Playing Devil’s Advocate


The theme of this issue of ASBMB Today is advocacy, and that’s one subject about which I feel strongly. (OK, I admit I feel strongly about lots of subjects, but, trust me, this is one of them.) My feelings, however, are ambivalent, so I think I should explain them.


I always have been deeply suspicious of what are often referred to as “activists.” It’s not because I don’t admire their passion. I do. It’s also not necessarily because I don’t share their views. I often do. What I’m suspicious of is what their advocacy does to their judgment on other issues. It’s been my experience that people who devote most of their time and effort to one thing frequently view all things through the lens of that single issue. And I don’t think that you can get a clear view of the whole world through one, possibly distorting, lens.

It’s sort of like being a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk conservative. If your first reaction to any problem or question is driven by a set of values or beliefs that may not apply in that particular situation, you are unlikely to come up with a good answer or make a good decision.

Now, as it happens, these considerations are of some importance to a scientific society. It’s pretty easy for an organization devoted to furthering the interests of a group of professionals to focus on the topic on which the group itself is most concerned. In the case of a society whose membership is composed largely of academic biochemists, that one issue would be federal support for basic research.

Before I go on, let me make something clear: Increasing federal support for basic research is very important to me personally, and I believe it is an issue that must be important to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as well. And, of course, it is.

But it cannot be the only issue. If that were the case, we would be in danger of seeing everything through that particular distorting lens: If it increases federal support for basic research, it must be good, and we must advocate for it; if it threatens that support in any way, it must be bad, and we must oppose it. That sort of thinking can turn us into very bad advocates for the interests of our members — or devil’s advocates, if you will.

For a concrete example, consider the question of evaluating and possibly discontinuing some federally funded scientific programs. If our primary mission was to increase funding, we should be against any such quality control because it might send a message to Congress that not all research dollars are well spent, and that could hurt the chances for increases. Yet, I believe, in the name of good science and responsible scientific citizenship, there may be times when we need to support the critical evaluation and possible termination of some programs because spending scientific research funds wisely ought to be just as important to us as getting more of them. If we don’t feel that way, we are just a group of lobbyists with questionable integrity.


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