No matter how the peer-review process is amended, the arsenic-life affair laid bare the challenges of scientific discourse in a new media age. The productive collision of ideas and personalities and opinions has long been refereed and filtered by science journals. If that process has made science seem, from a distance, civilized and rational, it has also made it slow and undemocratic. It can take months for a response to be published, if it is published at all. Now scientists are taking the review process into their own hands, creating a fluid communal verdict that’s both immediate and infinitely open to revision. Theoretically, at least, peer-review-by-blog has the potential to move science forward faster, humanize it, and communicate it more openly. But it also risks upending a system that provides a credible scientific record and an impartial forum for rigorous, professional and civil scientific debate.
“I still think science is the coolest thing on Earth,” Wolfe-Simon tells me when we meet the morning after the video shoot in a coffee shop overlooking Mono Lake in Lee Vining. “But it’s quite possible that my career is over.”
In June, Science reported that Wolfe-Simon had left Oremland’s USGS laboratory to look for a location with better molecular and genetic research facilities. “Actually,” Wolfe-Simon says, “I didn’t leave out of choice. Ron basically evicted me from the group. It was a political decision on his part that I don’t understand, and I didn’t see it coming.” Although she received a NASA fellowship in 2010 that provides support through 2013, she is still seeking a new home for her work.
I find it hard not to feel sympathy for her. In a matter of weeks she was catapulted to fame, then singled out and assaulted with professional and personal criticism, some of which resulted from missteps beyond her control. Wolfe-Simon is an early-career researcher in a field dominated by older men. Few scientists, no matter how established, would have the skills to navigate the situation that she found herself in. What made the level of criticism so extraordinary is that the paper, in itself, is not so flawed that it should not have been published. The argument was compelling, the conclusions were measured, the data was thorough, and the paper made it through the same peer-review process as other articles in Science.
Some who initially blasted Wolfe-Simon have since changed their mind. Blogger Alan Townsend, who directs the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, says he was guilty of rash judgment, and that his preliminary opinions—expressed in writing and conversations with his colleagues—contributed to a response from the scientific community that was “often unprofessional, and at times became downright shameful.” He says, “Absent major ethical violations, no junior scientist full of passion for an idea deserves crucifixion for a professional failure or two. If a paper is flawed, it should be dismissed. The scientist should not.”
Even Redfield has struck a more conciliatory tone. In an e-mail to Wolfe-Simon following her initial critical burst, she wrote, “What matters in science isn’t whether we make mistakes (we all do) but how we handle them, and I think you’re handling the situation well.”
In Lee Vining, Wolfe-Simon and I settle into seats by a window, and again she pulls out her tape recorder. “This whole thing has been so strange,” she says. “ ‘Challenging’ doesn’t fully encompass the experience I’ve had in the past six months.”
It will take a few years to better answer the questions surrounding GFAJ-1. In the meantime, Benner—who says he would be “more than astonished” if arsenic replaces phosphorus in any genetically relevant molecule in GFAJ-1—says Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is ultimately useful if it motivates people to look in new places and ask bigger questions.
Wolfe-Simon says the paper’s publicity attracted new collaborators who she wouldn’t have otherwise met, some of whom are already analyzing GFAJ-1. And her fame has played out in surprising ways. Recently, her husband, Jonathan, an engineer, was speaking with a colleague who asked if he happened to be married to Felisa Wolfe-Simon. When he said yes, the colleague said, “My seven-year-old daughter dressed up as Felisa for her school’s science day!” The girl wore a sun hat, with her pants rolled up and flip-flops on her feet, dressed for a day wading the waters of Mono Lake in search of bacteria.
“As difficult as things have been in the past months for me personally,” Wolfe-Simon says, finishing her espresso, “if my work can make this little girl have that kind of inspiration, then maybe it’s all good.” She gazes out the window, at the flat, gray lake. “Then again, considering what’s happened, maybe now she’s thinking it’s not such a good idea after all. Maybe she should go into marketing.”
As the interview winds down, I ask Wolfe-Simon if she has any children of her own. She says she doesn’t but that she has a young niece she spends a lot of time doting on. “I know there will come a day,” she says, “when she will ask me two questions: Are we alone?And how did we get here? These are things that humans have been asking for a long time. And right now, we don’t know the answers."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.