A retrospectroscope is a mythical device for looking backward in time.
I was reminded of this device by a recent editorial in the Denver Post. This writer tells a fairly personalized story of how medical science makes progress and how, in our fast-paced world that is all a-Twitter, an impatient desire for immediate application of scientific findings to improve health care (or whatever) arises from a misunderstanding of how science actually works. I think this is worth a read...if science policy makers ignore this message they do so at the risk of -- paradoxically -- hampering progress.
Where the retrospectroscope comes into this picture is that one of my prized possessions is a book by Julius Comroe: Retrospectroscope; Insights into Medical Discovery (Von Gohr Press, Menlo Park, CA, 1975 -- but don't count on finding it). It is really a story about the importance of basic science coupled with investigator-driven curiosity. If you've been following along on this blog, you know the importance I place on investigator-driven basic-science research for progress in health sciences (or other applied areas) -- it is the engine of progress, in fact, and without it we would make slower progress in the long run. (Don't mistake my message as disparaging applied science -- it too is vitally important.)
This was Dr. Comroe's steady drumbeat throughout out much of his storied career as a physician scientist. In fact, he wrote Retrospectroscope to fight back against impatient scientists and politicians (like a president who declared war on cancer) who thought they knew all about how to make faster progress by targeting applied research (these days we would call this translational research) and shifting emphasis away from basic research (a similarly motivated, but more narrowly focused, book by Dr. Comroe is Exploring the Heart).
This tension between basic and applied research is always somewhat present, but waxes and wanes in intensity. It has waxed recently, and this can be appreciated in the message public research universities (such as ours) put forth about their importance to the state...that they are engines of economic and societal progress. They most decidedly are! However, those who fund universities and set policy often see the only measures of success of research universities in very impatient and narrowly drawn terms -- near-term impacts on jobs, startup companies created, patents issued, and etc.. These are important outcomes, but an emphasis on these short-term measures of success reflects the basic misunderstanding that Dr. Comroe tried to counter in his books -- that's not how scientific progress works, or should be measured.
I think it is time to dust off the retrospectroscope.