Monday, January 30, 2012


Ready-to-wear or prêt-à-porter is the term for factory-made clothing, in standardized sizes, as distinct from haute-couture (high-fashion) design clothing. The former is based upon a pattern that is then duplicated and advertised to raise the visibility of the designer. The latter is endowed with great doses of novelty and creativity. In fact, it is believed that fashion design anticipates costumer tastes and, actually, marks the next tendencies. Fashion is everywhere and references to anything that is the current trend in interior design, furniture, food, music,...and science?

Can we consider science under the light of fashion? Are there prêt-à-porter and  haute-couture science? Are there trending topics? At least in the Microbiology field this is the case.

Every now and then there is a major conceptual breakthrough that opens new avenues of research (haute-couture). This brings an explosion of papers (prêt-à-porter), creation of new research groups and even new faculty positions. Two examples could be the discovery of the importance of "Toll-like" receptors in recognition of infections (recently awarded with the Nobel Prize in Medicine) and the importance of type 3 secretion nanomachines to deliver proteins, called effectors, across eukaryotic cellular membranes. But then, after a while, the number of papers decreases and only those groups having a clear-cut medium-long term research programme keep working in the field.

Another example is the implementation of a variety of OMICS to biomedicine to approach the complexity of biological systems. This led to the foundation of systems biology and even some academic institutions have created new research programmes, departments and faculty positions based on what they think it is a new discipline. However, we should not forget that it is just only a new fancy way to carry out research. Under my view, this is the key point. What do you want to know? what is is your hypothesis? and then you take the best available approach to proof your hypothesis. In other words, the scientific method. But in many cases the process is done the other way around: results are obtained and then the hypothesis is formulated.

Funding initiatives are also shape by fashion. In general, funding bodies do not take decisions based on the importance/relevance of the scientific programme. It is easier to fund a cancer research programme than an initiative aiming to improve the quality of the rice or the wheat, which, we should not forget, are the main sources of food in our world. How many cancer centers are in a given country compare to those dedicated to food science? Stem cells and cardivascular disease get a lot of funding and resources in comparison to the amount devoted to infectious diseases, the main caused of global death worldwide. And now it seems that  the trending topic is nanotechnology...

At least in Biomedicine, it is becoming more important the techniques and approaches than the questions, the hypothesis-driven research. I do agree that it is nearly impossible to avoid science-fashion but it should not be at the science´s expense. I believe we need relevant questions but not promises of better solutions that, in most cases, never come.

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