Something to think about

The Worn Grooves of Disciplinary Research:
[Via Science Progress]

Watson and Crick with their model of the double helix
Is pathbreaking science the product of interdisciplinary groups or the interdisciplinary thinking of foresighted individuals? In a commentary in PLoS Computational Biology, Sean Eddy, a Howard Hughes investigator, argues that “roadmap” thinking from the National Institutes of Health for building teams of specialists to tackle complex problems in modern research is flawed, because it encourages work in the worn grooves of existing, and perhaps outmoded, disciplines.

Rather, Eddy looks back to the birth of molecular genetics, as scientists stepped out of their research comfort zones and did the work necessary to understand fundamental problems in the study of cell biology. “We think of Watson and Crick as molecular biologists, not as an ornithologist and a physicist,” he writes, “The first molecular biologists were a motley crew of misfits and revolutionaries with no particularly relevant training, many of them ex-physicists.”
Image: Science Photo Library

The worry is that interdisciplinary teams would still occupy silos that only intermittently connect. Having worked at this, I’m not sure I fully agree with Eddy’s point. But I certainly see what he means.

The beginning of molecular biology can be seen as the influx of physicists from outside the field. The insights they brought were not strictly due to being interdisciplinary individuals. They also brought a very different point of view. They believed that the same approaches that had captured the atom and put it to humanity’s yoke could be applied to biology.

Schrodinger’s book What is Life? convinced many that biology and life were just applied chemistry and physics. He convinced them that life could be understood in the same why that physics could, that the complexities of life could be reduced to specific physical laws.

These physicists brought a theoretical simplification to the field. Their reductionist views led to a revolution in the approach to studying biology. Instead of being mostly observational, it was made experimental in highly analytical ways. In fact, ritualized analysis is exactly what they brought to the field.

Isolate a specific biological molecule in a test tube and then try to understand exactly what it does. That is what Watson and Crick accomplished. It was not that they were simply from another discipline They were amongst those that formulated a revolutionary approach to biology. It is what drove biology for 50 years. Reductive analysis changed the world.

To me, the important changes that were discovered were not simply done by the innovative individuals. There were lots of innovative individuals already in the field. It was the altered point of view, the innovative idea of reductive analysis that led the field. Once recognized many who were not multidisciplinary could follow the process.

Different or novel viewpoints often drive innovation. Finding and nurturing people who strive to move into new fields should be an important things to do. And many of these people will create very innovative things. I agree with Eddy that we need to work at supporting these people because they provide something very important – novel ways to try and solve problems.

Now, the criticism of interdisciplinary groups is that they will not really have any truly interdisciplinary people and stay stuck in the same points of view that they currently have.

Could be but then I do not think they will be very successful at solving interdisciplinary problems. Why? Because the revolution that gave us Watson, Crick, Delbruck, Gamow and others was extremely successful. Analysis solved so many of the really interesting and tractable problems. Cutting edge research seldom deals with analysis. It deals with the opposite of analysis, synthesis.

Today we are mixing all the molecules back together because we have realized that examining them in isolation only tells us part of the story. Biology is how they all interact together. The new point of view is that a biological system requires a synthetic systems approach , not a reductive analytical one.

Groups that focus too much on individual analysis instead of interdisciplinary synthesis will not be able to solve these complex biological problems that the revolution of the last 50 years has now left us.

The interdisciplinarians that revolutionized biology 50 years ago changed the point of view to an analytical one. The revolutionaries today are those that have a synthetic point of view.

So, to me, it is not so much what the individuals bring, although they obviously bring a tremendous amount. It is about how the group synthesizes the information. I think it is possible for groups to accomplish this without having to have a really unusual person like Crick involved. It just takes the right group dynamics.

Collaborations that synthesize each others data will succeed. Those that continue to only analyze their own will fail. We should realize that simply putting together groups will not automatically succeed. The groups need to be managed to synthesize that data.

I think it will be the innovative ways to manage the group dynamics that will help us to use synthetic systems approaches to solve our complex problems, not simply multidisciplinary individuals.

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2 thoughts on “Something to think about

  1. Or, as Sheldon said on The Big Bang Theory, “I am a physicist. I know everything.” If course, he didn’t say he UNDERSTOOD everything.

  2. Absolutely correct. Hegel lives on in the mind of those who exhibit innovative and leadership skills. Merriwether had Lewis, Watson had Crick, Howard had Noah, Obama has Chu…and some cousins.

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