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History, Yes, But Biologist’s Imagination Is No Flight Of Fancy

Xconomy National — 

Any book about life science innovation that starts with quotes from Frank Zappa and Albert Einstein promises to be a good read.

The Biologist’s Imagination holds to that promise, as authors William Hoffman and Leo Furcht, both of the University of Minnesota Medical School, take several forays back in history to explain the “crossroads”—perhaps an overused word but perfectly apt—at which we now stand in the exploration and exploitation of biology and our ever-expanding ability to shape the health, wealth, and composition of life on Earth.

Furcht is chair of UM’s department of laboratory medicine and pathology, and Hoffman runs the department’s communications. It’s their second book together; the first was 2008’s The Stem Cell Dilemma.

For a book with “imagination” in the title (subtitle: “Innovation in the Biosciences”), the authors’ forays into the future are rather modest. But they are upfront about how much the book is about the history of biological innovation, brought about by the confluence of scientific inquiry, capitalism, and entrepreneurialism.

The flashbacks are well chosen and, for someone not already steeped in the history of science, enlightening, from a short history of the self-proclaimed “Lunaticks” of Birmingham, England’s Lunar Society, who built a technology cluster and intellectual network that fueled the Industrial Revolution; to the Cold War British scientists who pioneered X-ray crystallography to build the first 3-D models of proteins, when the 25,000 spots on the film were beyond the mathematical capacity “of any existing computational machine” (how’s that for Big Data?); to the social consciousness at the University of Wisconsin, where the discoveries of how to add Vitamin D to milk and, later, the anticoagulant warfarin, were touchstones of the “Wisconsin Idea” of improving the community beyond the school’s walls.

Cover of The Biologist's Imagination by William Hoffman and Leo FurchtOn occasion Hoffman and Furcht veer off course, trying to tie a ribbon of innovation around the whole of human history and nearly skidding into a hagiographic ditch. “We”—meaning the human race—“plumb the secrets of the sciences of life and seek to capture that knowledge and put it to work,” they write. “We may have new ideas and new tools, but we are infused by the same spirit that prompted our distant forbearers to leave the African savannah.”

Mainly, thank goodness, the authors have little need for bombast to make compelling arguments: for breaking down walls between industry, academia, and government; for the reality of climate change and the need for bioscience to help us fight it; for the role of government as the critical source of basic research funding; for the support of open source and open access spreading in the biosciences, just as it has in software.

They excel in laying out the present, although their thoroughness can be a two-edged sword. To flesh out the many components of life science research and development—intellectual property, physical and virtual business networks, computing power, the muscle of urban clusters—they do from time to time write themselves into the weeds. (The details of recent American patent reform or of Edinburgh, Scotland’s BioQuarter cluster planning will thrill only a select few.)

By methodically presenting so much of the present, The Biologist’s Imagination invites us to imagine a relatively near future. It’s a stepwise exercise, not one of bold futuristic leaps: You think the bioscience world is clustered in a few teeming, intellectually privileged urban areas now? Just wait until network effects, path dependence, and other tech-shiny terms really take hold in an ever-more connected world:

“Think of a successful technology cluster today as a learning center, a constellation of pin factories”—Adam Smith’s favorite example, and one the authors return to time and again—“and their suppliers that both compete and collaborate. Through the division of labor, knowledge architecture, communications channels, and increasing returns to scale through higher productivity, firms within the cluster enjoy a competitive advantage they would not enjoy without the proximity of buyers, competitors, suppliers, and research institutions in the neighborhood.”

On this topic, too, their spotlight on the past—in particular, some great background on the origins of North Carolina’s successful Research Triangle Park cluster, as well as New York City’s fitful attempts to build one—is more toothsome than their projections into the future. I would have liked to see them flesh out in more detail—and more imagination—one pundit’s idea of a “therapeutic city,” which would not only have the requisite technology, progressive teaching and research institutes, but also plentiful aging residents who are the “early adopters” of the drugs and medical technology in development around the corner and down the street. (Between the senior citizens and the dirt-poor post-docs and the med students, would anyone ever go dancing or eat a nice dinner out after 6pm in Therapeutic City?)

One sweet spot for Hoffman and Furcht is the world of pharmaceutical development and its shortcomings, even with the latest technologies applied. Drug R&D in the age of high throughput screening has been disappointing, measured by … Next Page »

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  • sciguybm

    Because you can does not mean you should.
    The concept that our science and knowledge has advanced so far meaning that we have to take the corporate, industrial he!! that goes with it is ludicrous. (and I don’t mean the rapper)