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Sanger's legacy stirs up digital chatter

Nature volume 511, page 9 (03 July 2014) | Download Citation

Nature's roundup of the papers and issues gaining traction on social media.

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Social media has been tackling some deep questions, starting with a thought problem: would a certain two-time Nobel laureate have trouble landing a grant today? Researchers also pondered the future of evidence-based medicine and the meaning of a new discovery involving the Higgs boson.

The late Fred Sanger, famous for work that gained him a pair of chemistry Nobel prizes, is now a social-media celebrity too — thanks to a paper by genome scientist Stanley Fields at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gaps in Sanger's publishing record had led fellow Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner to speculate earlier this year that Sanger wouldn't get research money under today's draconian funding criteria, but Fields argues that Sanger's brand of genius would still thrive. The Twittersphere wasn't wholly reassured. François Gould, a palaeontology postdoc at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tweeted: “I appreciate this article's nuanced take on a complex issue, but [the] problem is still: most of us are not Fred Sanger.”

Sanger's CV became a hot topic in January after Brenner, co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, paid tribute to the great biochemist's legacy in Science (S. Brenner Science 343, 262; 2014). Brenner lauded Sanger's many achievements, including deciphering the amino-acid sequence of insulin and the nucleotide sequence of 5S ribosomal RNA, but lamented that: “A Fred Sanger would not survive today's world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977.”

Fields makes the case that any modern scientist who could match Sanger's productivity would still sail through the grant process. The biochemist published some 70 papers, from 'The nitrogen of the potato' in 1942 to 'Nucleotide sequence of bacteriophage λ DNA' in 1982. Sanger lacked any flashy publications in the years before his seminal 1977 DNA-sequencing paper, but published several papers about methodologies and sequences that paved the way to his major breakthrough. Because of his bold ideas and steady productivity, Fields writes, “a modern-day NIH study section would give Sanger a highly fundable score.”

In an interview, Fields said that his article should strike a note of optimism. “Overall, many applications worthy of funding are being funded, and creativity is often rewarded,” he explained. “I don't think we've seen the last of game-changing ideas from individual scientists.” Fields was surprised by the sheer volume of Twitter comments on his article, and suggested that “the topic of whether even a two-time Nobel prize winner could get an NIH grant resonated with scientists struggling to get funded themselves.”

Gould explained that his tweet reflects his frustration with the grant process. “Most of us trying to make it as junior scientists aren't playing in Fred Sanger's league,” he said. From his perspective, it is still hugely challenging to convince a grant committee to take a chance on a young principal investigator who lacks a long history of publications.

Florian Markowetz, a computational biologist at the University of Cambridge, tweeted a more upbeat view: “Don't worry, Fred Sanger, you'd be fine! Today's science ain't that bad after all.” In a blog post, Markowetz writes that intense competition has helped to fuel some of science's major advances, such as sequencing the human genome. “And in 50 years,” he writes, “I will look back wistfully at the science of 2014 and complain loudly and to everybody that it has all been downhill since then.”

Also hitting a nerve is an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that warns of a “crisis” in evidence-based medicine. Researchers and clinicians took to Twitter in the hundreds to praise the paper and its findings. Jørgen Jevne, a musculoskeletal clinician in Norway, tweeted that it was “the greatest paper I have read. Ever.”

In the paper, primary health-care physician Trisha Greenhalgh at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and her colleagues argue that big advances in medical care — such as the discovery that eradication of the gut bacterium Helicobacter pylori could cure ulcers — are largely a thing of the past. Recent clinical trials, often funded by drug companies, tend to search for marginal benefits that may not have much meaning in the real world. In what they call an example of “the evidence-based tail wagging the clinical dog”, the authors speculate that a physician following the latest guidelines could keep a 74-year-old woman on high-dose statins even if the drugs ended up causing muscle pains that stopped her pursuing her hobbies. They conclude that doctors should be trained to tailor their therapies to “individual needs, circumstances, and preferences.” They also call for publishers to consider the “usability” of evidence when evaluating papers.

In an online letter to the BMJ, Shaun Treweek, a health-services researcher at the University of Aberdeen, UK, took issue with the suggestion that the health-care system needs an overhaul. “We don't need a new type of evidence based healthcare,” he writes. “We need better evidence, better presented.”

Particle physics is a trending topic after a big announcement on 22 June from a team at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab near Geneva. Researchers reported that they had observed the presumed Higgs boson particle decaying into fermions, the particles that create mass — exactly as they had predicted. Previously, they had seen the Higgs decaying only into the particles that produce force. This breakthrough all but erased any doubt that the particle was the true Higgs boson, thought to be responsible for all of the mass in the Universe. It was also a vindication for the 'standard model' of particle physics. Or, as Henry Legg, physics student at the University of St Andrews put it on Twitter, “the standard model wins again”.

But not all observers were celebrating. For some, the result fitted almost too neatly with expectations. The Extremetech online newsletter put it this way: “If you were hoping for the Higgs boson to be the weird particle that led us towards the weird and wonderful nether regions of science beyond the Standard Model — supersymmetry, dark matter, dark energy — then sadly this is not the particle you were looking for.”

The CMS Collaboration Nature Phys. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nphys3005 (2014)

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