They say reality sometimes writes the best stories. I don’t agree. Reality sucks. It’s messy and complicated, often goes against our intuition or sense of justice. Real stories are usually not very sexy or intriguing, most of the time they are ordinary. When things go wrong, there is no great spiritual evil pulling the strings, merely a common mixture of human incompetence, bad luck and plain arrogance leading to collapse or catastrophe.
I would know, since I am no evil mastermind yet blood is on my hands too.
See, I was a researcher once. Not one of the famous kind, more like the average, thoughtful kind. When I started, the creation of knowledge was still a noble pursuit. I cherished the dinosaurs of science, spending their lives trying to find small pieces for a puzzle of unknown size and shape; you might call it reality.
Yet times have changed, in general, but also for medical science.
‘Not knowing’ went out of fashion, so did waiting for ‘conclusive results’. Generation instant-gratification is about the immediate sell, before attention waivers. I knew it, we all did.
And so when science facts were increasingly replaced by science fictions, the spoils went to the best narrators, not the pesky objectors. I know you probably don’t care. The scientific process is still an enigma for most. But I should have known better.
I should have cared that the humble puzzlers were being replaced by the well-connected or politically gifted; the silver-tongued, the career-savvy, the immoral. Too long I turned a blind eye to keep my head down and my lab’s pockets filled as well. ‘If we run out of money, we can’t do any science anymore’, I rationalized. Publish or perish.
I exhaled forcefully, the all-too-known acid spit of resentment in my mouth.
My room was as dark as my train-of-thought. I did not need to switch on the TV, I knew my face would be on there. Unshaven, bespectacled deep eyes, hipster green scarf with the letters “CRISPR” stitched on it. The hopeful face of the gene editing revolution.
And its untimely vanquisher. One can ignore reality for a long time, but at some point it will catch up and crush you.
Seventeen dead children. Leukemia patients, sure, their lives were hanging on a thread anyway. But I could have saved them, with more time. At least not do harm. Things were not adding up, more tests needed to be done. Still, they asked me to proceed, to be the first, because of China, the threat of competition, and the fame and the money it will bring for our University.
Obviously, they’ve bought themselves a PR nightmare, which they still might’ve handled if I were to go silently. But the old dinosaurs wouldn’t go extinct without a big impact either.
So I’ve drafted my last scientific publication: ‘Reproducibility crisis, incentive malalignment and gaming the system’, a dry report on the state of academic affairs. When I put my laptop aside, I realized that part of me never let go of being a meticulous researcher. I had kept all the original data backed up in a secret storage. The incomplete genome editing in cell culture lines. The mouse experiments showing resistance to CRISPR cell therapy. The patients covertly excluded from clinical trials. Data about all the prominent people involved who cut corners, cherry-picked the data, lied a little here and there so they can get their stories published, their narratives financed and their careers rolling. At what price?
Like I said, in reality, great evil often comes from the ordinary and mundane, when we fail to care about little wrongs for as long as they suit us.
When my report was predictably rejected by all major academic publishers, I send it to the press. There, it hit like a bombshell. Now the other cockroaches finally smell the gasoline, but it is too late for them as well. I lit the match that set myself on fire, and I will not be going out alone.
When cells in our body become malignant, sometimes they still manage to initiate apoptosis, the programmed cell death. A suicide to protect the rest of the body from corruption. This necessary correction is the last story reality has on offer for people like me.