Industry-funded science fluff litters the whole of the British Isles. Also in the past few weeks, the U.K. press fawned over a comely chip-shop girl from Kent who was found by a national television network to possess a scientifically validated, perfect face, while the British version of HuffPo reported on a mathematical formula for the “perfect sandwich”—produced by a University of Warwick physicist in collaboration with a major bread manufacturer. Spurious mathematical formulae concocted at the behest of PR firms compose their own journalism beat in England: In recent years, we’ve seen the perfect boiled egg, the perfect day, the perfect breasts, and many more examples of scientists getting paid to turn life into algebra. As a naive magazine intern, I once took an assignment to write up one of these characteristically English equations—a means of calculating the perfect horror movie, in that case. The team of mathematicians behind the research turned out to be a couple of recent grads from King’s College London, who’d watched some movies and gotten drunk on vodka on behalf of Sky Broadcasting. “We only spent a couple of hours doing it,” one of them told me, “and didn’t put all that much thought into whether it works or how accurate it is.”
At the National Institute on Aging, as at every major research center, the animals are grouped in plastic cages the size of large shoeboxes, topped with a wire lid and a food hopper that’s never empty of pellets. This form of husbandry, known as ad libitum feeding, is cheap and convenient since animal technicians need only check the hoppers from time to time to make sure they haven’t run dry. Without toys or exercise wheels to distract them, the mice are left with nothing to do but eat and sleep—and then eat some more.
That such a lifestyle would make rodents unhealthy, and thus of limited use for research, may seem obvious, but the problem appears to be so flagrant and widespread that few scientists bother to consider it. Ad libitum feeding and lack of exercise are industry-standard for the massive rodent-breeding factories that ship out millions of lab mice and rats every year and fuel a $1.1-billion global business in living reagents for medical research. When Mattson made that point in Atlanta, and suggested that the control animals used in labs were sedentary and overweight as a rule, several in the audience gasped. His implication was clear: The basic tool of biomedicine—and its workhorse in the production of new drugs and other treatments—had been transformed into a shoddy, industrial product. Researchers in the United States and abroad were drawing the bulk of their conclusions about the nature of human disease—and about Nature itself—from an organism that’s as divorced from its natural state as feedlot cattle or oven-stuffer chickens.
Part 2, part 3.
The rise and fall of quicksand.