Will a disruption in science find a cure for AIDS?
Efforts aimed at combating HIV will need fresh blood and minds.
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Why have we not been able to find a cure for AIDS? What is preventing the breakthrough? The time is apt for a stocktaking, as World AIDS Day was recently commemorated. Despite the huge strides civilisation has taken in terms of science and technology and the information revolution, the cure for AIDS continues to elude humanity - notwithstanding the unprecedented expenditure of resources the world over to fight the infection and spread of HIV.
So, a resource crunch is not the issue. Is it the lack of what is commonly called "out-of-the-box thinking"? Efforts aimed at combating HIV will need fresh blood and minds.
Online gamers make 'protein' discovery
Scientists from the University of Washington could not decipher a particular protein's structure. Finally, they initiated a competition for online gamers, putting up variations of molecular structures on a website. They asked the enthusiasts to tweak the structures of molecules in innovative ways to find the most energy-efficient version. Soon, a group of gamers called "The Contenders"discovered a structure found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. It was the first instance when people outside the scientific community solved what was a wholly scientific problem.
Seth Cooper, lead designer and developer at Foldit, the website on which the discovery was made, said that the gamers' lack of a scientific and, particularly, biochemistry background could have actually worked in their favour. Cooper was trying to explain the reasons for the discovery. He further said that the gamers, who were unaware of the traditional rules operating in biochemistry, were perhaps able "to be really creative and come up with a lot of different interesting solutions".
Can the approach be replicated to find a cure for AIDS?Science needs to be more democratic. Credit: Reuters
In the American biographical film Dallas Buyers Club, an AIDS patient devises innovative ways to combat his ailment. In the late 1980s, HIV was under-researched and AIDS was stigmatised. As part of the experimental AIDS treatment movement, the character of Matthew McConaughey smuggles unapproved medicines for treating his symptoms, and distributes them to other patients too, despite facing stiff opposition from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The true events suggest that the scientific community must provide access to non-technical innovators. Well-trained minds could, at times, get stuck in a rut. Modern science needs to be democratic and open.
The UNESCO World Conference on Science has said: "Today, whilst unprecedented advances in the sciences are foreseen, there is a need for a vigorous and informed democratic debate on the production and use of scientific knowledge. The scientific community and decision-makers should seek the strengthening of public trust and support for science through such a debate."
A British Council conference also concluded that science should become more open and democratic, and admit citizens as active partners and participants in the process of innovation.
For a true "knowledge society" to exist and function, a change in mindset is necessary in science. It is time the community shed its historic reluctance to involve people from other fields. Science needs to throw open its doors to anyone willing to pitch in and remove the mistrust between science and society and bring in radical change in the traditional practice of science.
Science should debunk the perceived notions of "scientific knowledge" versus "lay knowledge". They are both equal and essential partners in the process of innovation. Perhaps, this is the disruption that science has been waiting for.