The new dubstep

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The same trends that characterise music genres also apply to science funding.

The spectrum of science is vast, and, like pop culture, is perpetually in thrall to what’s new. Topics in human biology – especially those relating to cancer or cardiovascular disease or, increasingly, neurodegenerative disease and ageing, form the mainstream pop music that fills the scientific airwaves, but like pop music itself, they’re always looking for ways to keep the sound fresh. That means keeping an ear out for the next big thing.

What that next big thing will be is impossible to predict. Commentators and research junkies will survey the literature for signs of heat and light coming from one of science’s innumerable subgenres, but the point when a particular area – be it lipid rafts, autophagy, extracellular vesicles, liquid-liquid phase separation, or something else – suddenly goes into overdrive is governed by so many variables that it’s pointless trying to guess it. You’ll never know what’s going to be the new grime, the new K-Pop, the new dubstep.

Dubstep itself offers a cautionary tale for trendseekers, as there’s probably no genre which went from underground to uncool quite as quickly. Music genres, like microbial colonies, tend to follow a lag-log-stationary-decline trajectory (sometimes with a later rebirth). Science fields go the same way. So does science funding.

Dubstep’s origin, its lag phase, dates back to the end of the 90s – far back enough that legendary Radio1 DJ John Peel was championing the sound on his show before his death in 2004. It continued to develop but if you weren’t part of the scene you wouldn’t have known as it kept on maturing and incubating in the dark of clubs and underground radio. Then, suddenly, in 2009, it hit the mainstream.

That much of the trajectory is fairly normal, and it’s a path trodden by plenty of genres before and since, but the rapid and almost indecent haste with which dubstep saturated the mainstream led to it almost immediately being disavowed by those who had formerly championed it. Dubstep was now Rihanna, dubstep was Britney Spears, dubstep was naff.

What’s significant is that what really killed it as a credible genre wasn’t its original architects – it was the people jumping on the bandwagon. Becoming cool meant that cool people suddenly wanted to be associated with it, to protect and sustain their cool status. And once that happened, the quality control went out the window. The credibility that brought success was lost as mainstream acts rushed to be associated with the new sound and started incorporating it into their own tracks. Dubstep got hyped out of credibility.

Science funding bubbles follow similar trends. Fields come into fashion and suddenly everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Funds will be made available for the new field in the limelight, priority programmes will be established, PhD programmes will train a generation of young scientists, reviews will be written, national scientific bodies will vie to lead the new area, and once that happens, the cool kids will leap to be associated with it.

Everyone finds a way to link their favourite topic to the cool new thing. Eventually, the cool new thing will get linked to cancer. And once a cool new topic gets linked to cancer, two things happen: the money rolls in, and the credibility nosedives. Cancer researchers jumping on a field is both the ultimate endorsement of relevance, and the same as Britney Spears doing dubstep.

Yup, the problem with a bundle of scientific imitators is exactly the same as with mainstream pop artists purloining breakbeats. The newcomers to the field end up clambering all over it and trying to get a slice of the cool for themselves (often in the shortest possible time, because you need to show you’re hip), leaving the risk of the field being overrun before it’s had a chance to properly define and organise itself. 

Lipid rafts never managed to overcome the semantic confusion resulting from the term being used to describe a welter of different sizes, subdomains, and detergent-resistent membranes. Extracellular vesicles currently face the same credibility problem because effective standardisation has not yet been established, and too many papers are coming out making rash claims. Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS), which is now being invoked to explain or be associated with everything from transcription to stress responses to neurodegeneration, is beginning to have a similar issue. 

Like music, the creators’ ultimate triumph – mainstream interest and recognition – is a bittersweet one. Inevitably, the concept ends up getting diluted. It gets stale, or bleaches from overexposure. Sometimes, it gets abandoned. The mainstream moves on, the hype dies down, and the field either goes into stasis or begins quietly rebuilding. 

Just as drum n’ bass itself rose out of the ashes of rave, just as old sounds get revisited and refreshed for new generations (think Tame Impala and Temples for psychedelic rock) so too can science fields revitalise themselves once they’re free from the flashbulbs and hysteria. But by then the mainstream, and the money, will have moved on.

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