Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Defense of Fishing Expeditions

I agree with the end of this interview with Janet Rowley, an eminent cancer geneticist who discovered that some forms of leukemia come from broken chromosomes; not in the sense of "every bit of research needs to be like this" but "there is a place for this kind of research in the academy":

Q. Do you think that the type of career you’ve had would be possible today?

A. No. I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a “fishing expedition,” a bad thing.

O.K., we knew about the Philadelphia chromosome, and after banding we had the technology to discover gains and losses among the different chromosomes. But once you knew that, what were the implications of the gains and losses? That’s the “fishing,” because there wasn’t a hypothesis.

Well, if you don’t know anything, you can’t have a sensible hypothesis.

I keep saying that fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.

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