Sunday, November 1, 2009

The time lag in science

Been reading a journal, it has the papers from two conferences. The conferences were about:

1) Mediterranean diet
2) Problems that diabetes causes and how to understand them

These seem rather topical with the Mediterranean diet being praised and diabetes gaining a higher profile.
The question I have for you is: How long ago do you think these conferences were held?  

2008? or 2005... maybe even year 2000? Nope, keep on going back.... 1995, nope even further.... 1991. Yes nearly 20 years ago in 1991 they were discussing how great the Mediterranean diet was and the issues with diabetes. Yet is was not until at least year 2000 before it became common knowledge that the Mediterranean diet was good for you (I  don't actually know when it happened, do you?)

Now it has taken at least a decade if not 15 or so years for this information to be commonly known. This is the time lag effect in science. Modern science has a very large time lag. This is due for a number of reasons, including at least the following:
  • Research is often done by students or post graduate fellows. This means that the supervisor who will often write up the work, or the student who does, will only write up near the end of their study's. With a Ph D taking 3 - 5 years there is a few years between results and publication.
  • Peer review process. This is when other scientists review the publication and discuss it's worthiness of being published. The process of submitting a paper, having feedback and resubmitting, then waiting for publication would be almost always longer than a year. 
  • Idea dissemination. Like any group of people ideas and new concepts are like viruses. They infect groups of people, in specific areas. Thus if you have a new idea, it takes time for the "infection" to flow through the scientific community and become accepted as an idea. This is why so many people die before there great contribution to science is recognized (this does not only happen in science).
  • Popular press. Once an idea has caught on in academic and science circles someone then has to write a book explaining the concept into everyday terms. Again this takes time. Time for the writer to understand, write the book, publish it and get it into book stores.
So you can see that there is a significant time lag between discovery of an idea, to acceptance of this idea in scientific communities and then onto public eye. This is why it took over a decade from having a conference on how great the Mediterranean diet was, to when you heard about it.

Thus it is one of the purposes of this blog to speed up the time from the idea to be researched to the time your life is impacted by postive change. 

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