Has bench science embraced technological advances to its best potential?
The ‘bench-scientist’ is a fickle creature, found flitting from room to room carrying an assortment of tubes with indecipherable scribbles marking each side. This rarely seen species is easily spooked by sudden changes; any small alteration to its environment otherwise arranged by the entropy of time and migratory undergraduate and masters students. If one is to introduce a novel object into this unique environment the scientist may approach, albeit with caution, inspecting each facet of this new implement. If accepted as an agreeable tool, the scientist will invariably designate the object as their own, affixing tape, labels and signatory markings upon the sides. This rarely witnessed sight is one of great splendor.
There is a risk associated with changing ‘what works’, even if the potential is there for the change to save time. Perhaps there is an element of not wanting to question the knowledge that has been carefully passed down
Science and technology are inextricably intertwined, their progress interdependent to the greatest extent. The difficulty faced by many scientists however is the element of risk associated with embracing a new technology. The bench scientist experiences two main forms of technological advance. That of the computing, the internet and associated tools, and equipment that promises to automate and optimise physical work in the lab. Starting with the latter, an example of my own experience is that of the humble western blot. This technique used for the detection of proteins is now a rather old method, knowledge of and associated idiosyncrasies of which have passed through multiple generations of scientists. This is a technique which requires careful practice and honing; one which may necessitate repeating a multi-day experiment if inexpertly carried out. Attempting to modify this protocol, and the tools associated with which are thus difficult to embrace. There is a risk associated with changing ‘what works’, even if the potential is there for the change to save time. Perhaps there is an element of not wanting to question the knowledge that has been carefully passed down. I propose that the greater issue is that of having limited time for experimenting with the tools of experimentation, when the discovery of answers to the questions of the latter are perhaps more pertinent. This is the reason why the ultra-speed-mega-blotter-7000 will never be embraced by most labs, atleast those that already have expertise in a technique. After all, nearly all of this high-tech wet-lab equipment sacrifices detection sensitivity in exchange for time. This is not a sacrifice that is acceptable to most, especially as the 30 year old now-esentially-free equipment still works just fine. My feeling on this is that the physical tools offered, do not represent solutions to the actual problems faced. But then again, maybe it’s good that thermo-fisher is dishing out R&D money on such ventures. I’m sure the costs aren’t spread out to the consumer across the rest of their rather broad offerings…
Technological advance in the digital realm is one which would benefit from greater communication between the computer scientists and the wet-lab species. The onus is on both parties to extend their expertise in their respective realms to each other, to produce tools that will benefit science as a whole. What the future holds in this regard will be fascinating to experience. This raises the question of whether the wet-lab species is facing an extinction crisis. Surely a robot can pipette with greater accuracy for longer hours. Is this a change that many will want to embrace? Scientific progress may designate this as a moot point, as surely all we want as scientists is to discover the answers to the questions we ask. I really do quite like pipetting however.