There oughta be a study!
Over the past few weeks, while blogging away against ignorance, injustice and general fuzzy-headed thinking, I noticed quite a few members of the autism-mercury movement (and not a few others, as well) complain that "the government" wasn't heeding their calls to research this treatment or that (hypothetical) cause. That got me thinking - perhaps these people don't understand how science works ("Duh!" as my eldest offspring would say); perhaps they don't know how studies get started.
First off, I think that the complaints about "the government" not doing the "proper" studies are just a bunch of verbal dust bunnies. These are the same people who are still howling about the last bunch of "government sponsored" studies that didn't show a connection between autism and mercury. Given the response from the autism-mercury cabal, I can't imagine that the folks in Washington or Atlanta are in a big hurry to sponsor a bunch of new studies that these people will end demonizing when they don't like the results.
What the folks in the autism-mercury movement mean is that they want "the government" to do some studies that will produce results that they like. Maybe the NIMH could sponsor a study by Rashid Buttar or Jeff Bradstreet. Those guys know how to do a study - they'll get the results everyone in the autism-mercury movement is looking for!
Some of you may have noticed that I keep putting the words "the government" in quotation marks (inverted commas, to my friends across the pond). This is because the government is not a monolithic organization. From the scientist-looking-for-a-grant (like me, currently), "the government" is a maze of different agencies with confusing acronyms, all with different (but often overlapping) responsibilities, agendas, priorities and funding rules.
"The government" also does not have brigades of scientists waiting in laboratories for the "GO!" signal from headquarters - the scientists employed by "the government" already have full-time jobs. In order to get new studies done, "the government" has to either hire new scientists and build them new laboratories or give money to deserving, skilled and hard-working scientists (like me!) in universities, institutions and private research laboratories.
In almost all cases, this sort of "out-sourcing" is done through the grant process. Grants can be very specific - "We want someone to develop an AIDS vaccine." - they can be more general - "Grants are available for research on the treatment of AIDS" - or they can be rather vague - "Grants are available for research on infectious diseases."
People like me look through booklets or websites of available grants and try to find grants for things that we're interested in working on. "The government" does not often come to a researcher and ask them to work on a specific project and they never tell someone "You will work on this project - or else!" (at least, they haven't since the Manhatten Project).
This brings up another problem with the "There oughta be a study!" approach to research. Scientists, despite ample evidence to the contrary, are people. And like other people, not many of them will consciously and willingly do something that will hurt them or their career. I know of researchers in the field of neurodevelopment and neurophysiology who have said flat out that they wouldn't touch autism research with a ten-meter pole. They have seen what happens to the folks who stepped in the middle of this catfight and they don't want any part of it.
And really, why should they? They get plenty of grants to do the things that interest them without having to put up with slander and hate mail. As a result, most of the people - on both "sides" - doing autism research are related to an autistic person. Some are autistic themselves - a possibility rejected by Lenny Schafer and his ilk, who think that autistic people should either be unable to talk or else remain silent out of sheer gratitude.
The funny thing - and it really is almost hysterically funny - is that the people who are screaming about "the government" not doing more studies should be screaming at the doctors and scientists on "their" side. Buttar, Bradstreet, Haley, Geier & Geier - any of them - could apply for and receive a grant. Heck, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has grants available! That should be right up their alley! Yet they don't apply and they protest that "the government" isn't doing all it can to research autism. Hypocrites!
So, here's a challenge to all the "There oughta be a study!" complainers - either submit a grant proposal or get one of the "leading lights" of the autism-mercury movement to submit one (or several). Unless you're willing to do that, you have no grounds to complain that "the government" isn't doing your bidding.
Oh, and here's a little secret. "The government" is you - those clowns in Washington (or London or Toronto or ...) are just the people you chose to represent you. If you don't like what "the government" is doing, then you are the only person with the power to change it.
Class dismissed - enjoy the sunshine while I go back to my office and polish my proposals.