Fine Structure

Brain Enhancement in Science

Alternatively titled "Profession that rewards intelligence under siege by smarter workers!" but I wasn't sure if all readers correctly interpreted the <sarcasm> tag.

This article at WebMD gives some very vague details about a poll of 1,400 Nature-readers in which questions relating to brain-enhancing drugs were asked. Unsurprisingly, not an insignificant portion of those polled (20%) suggested that they had taken some form of drug to boost brain function (although I'm not completely sure about the wording in the poll, it sounds as though the questions were somewhat direct). There were some other results for the type of drug used, questions about coworkers and children but I'll mostly focus on the main issue here.

Firstly, why is this 20% number any kind of news at all? I understand that science is filled with old guys who probably have little interest in changing their ways and taking "smart drugs" but this was news in high school and college well over four years ago which means that there are plenty of budding scientists for whom this probably isn't an unusual action, let alone sight. This number is only going to increase as new scientists for whom this is the norm replace the older scientists for whom this wasn't available.

That last distinction probably sums up my opinion fairly well. The only reason this isn't widely used right now is that the drugs weren't widely available until this generation of scientists. As for those who compare this phenomenon with baseball's current steroid scandal, it's quite different. Fair competition (while almost completely ignored) is supposed to exist in baseball. Science has it's own form of competition but it's by no means fair and, in the end, benefits the species.

I will concede one point that I'm not really sure about yet. Stratification is a big deal for anyone who competes and isn't born into just the right location. In this case, the availability of these drugs does give those scientists with access an edge over those without. Does this mean we should "even things out" by keeping these drugs from scientists everywhere? Of course not. That's counterproductive and you may as well try to "equal out" all the funding that science gets all around the world. How do we give the opportunity to try these smart drugs to those without? We don't. Not for lack of want, but because we have plenty more pressing issues like science education ahead of it. Probably more on this in the future.

The last thing I want to mention is that this issue must stem from fear of pills alone. I don't know of a single person who will claim that drinking coffee doesn't have some sort of effect on them and plenty of people, scientists or not, use coffee to stimulate the brain. We already take these types of drugs, they're just not in a format that's scary to us.