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Forecasting Science Trends


This week while I was attending a bioinformatics symposium, I began to ask myself why I was there. I am computational chemist, not a biologist, not a computer scientist, a chemist. So how is it that I am attending an entire day of lectures in something that I have never even taken an introductory course in? The answer is: this is the direction science is heading. The trending topic of ‘interdisciplinary studies’ is taking over academia and I think we are headed in the right direction for real results. 

My day was spent listening to lectures ranging from chemical reactions to clinical trials. The diversity was obvious, yet all the talks were related to the reason we were there. The keynote speaker, Dr. Pandey of Johns Hopkins University, really summarized it best: science is complicated, so why are we trying to simplify it? One general goal of academics, all be it for the wrong reasons, is to get that next publication out. However, this tends to lead to oversimplification of extremely difficult problems. Despite these consequences, it is the way scientists form competition and collaboration.

Is this a result of the system in place? Is it a fault that universities are organized by departments instead of goals? Is the academic structure of writing papers, writing grants, doing research, rinse and repeat hurting productivity?

My current university works closely with Moffitt Cancer Center so I have had the opportunity to see many of their talks and examine their research structure. They all have a common goal: treating cancer. They have a team in place where each investigator has a specialty ranging from chemical physicists to clinicians. Therefore, when they discuss problems each person overlaps just enough that the details do not get lost in the ether. One problem with academic science is that people are focused on what they know without bridging the gaps, but science does not have gaps. The scale is continuous.

Would universities benefit from changing their system to centers specializing in drug discovery, renewable energy resources, etc.? Could these teams be more productive if the infrastructure changed? Is it even possible to change the system? Are these centers trending? Are they actually producing the desired product?

There seems to be a trend in creating interdisciplinary centers. I know I work on a floor aimed to do materials science that contains engineers, physicists, and chemists (theoretical and experimental). Another floor of my building is forming a drug discovery center with a diverse group of specialties. On yet another floor of my building there are a series of labs working on malaria research. I definitely know of some collaborations occurring in the building in all of these fields. But how much collaboration is really going on? For us it is too soon to tell.

I know these aren’t the only examples of this implementation. How prevalent are these new interdisciplinary centers? Is this situation unique? Is this why industry is so successful in designing their own products?

What do you think? 

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  1. The field of astrobiology came out for this very reason.  The question of life's origins – and the possibility of extraterrestrial life – is an extremely complex one.  Life doesn't happen in a vaccum.  It happens on a planet (geology), which formed in a circumstellar disk and is heated by a star (astronomy), within the framework of a particular biochemistry (chemistry, biology), etc. 
    The questions we're trying to answer are going to require the collaborative efforts of many disciplines.  Happy to see this is happening in other fields…

  2. Ohio State University will allow you to blend your majors if you can prove it is a valid area of study.  Things like Forest Management, Computer simulation design for about anything can cross over into a dual major or one major if they deem it valid.  I found within my own major (Psychology), it was necessary to understand so many other fields, biology, sociology, art, culture, religion, etc etc, that psychology almost wasn't even one field. I think this is the future of all education really, and provides a much better understanding. IKEA says they get their ideas from stealing from other industries. So yeah, its got to be good.

  3. There will always be a need for specialization, simply because things in a subject *are* so complex that you often can't learn enough to grasp them fully, unless you focus on them exclusively. However, the reason for this sort of training has come out of the realization that often breakthroughs can result from crossovers, such as a breakthrough in understanding something in circulatory research, coming out of fluid dynamics. The real question is, "How much is enough to do this, or do you inadvertantly dilute the primary subject, such that you have just enough information to be dangerous (i.e., not come up with a lot of anything useful), but not enough in your own specific field to make serious progress?" There is a trade off, and its why this sort of thing started out years back as companies specializing in hiring a wide range of disciplines, then training them to work together on applying their fields to a specific subject, which someone else, who was stuck and couldn't figure something out, hired them to look at.
    Obviously, if you could have people cross trained, you could hire one semi-expert, with cross training in what you *think* are relavant fields, and not have to, in theory, hire one of those companies to help you. You might also be shooting yourself in the foot, by hiring the B student, while passing over the next Hawking, because they are "too specialized".
    Its going to be interesting seeing what this trend actual does. Because, at one time you could be a Franklin. Today, the Franklins of the world tend to be total nuts, because they know just enough to reinvent the lightbulb, but not enough that they don't spend nearly as much time reinventing things we already have as trying to build perpetual motion machines. There aren't a lot of sane "generalists" out there, precisely because the geniuses tend to do more by focusing on what they know (and often end up looking like total kooks, the moment they cross over into another field). So… I am slightly skeptical about this trend.

  4. Ha! I've got you beat on this one. I'm publishing papers in bioinformatics, my PhD is in Astronomy and the last time I formally studied biology I was 14. (To be fair, I do have a postgraduate diploma in computer science.)
    It turns out you don't need to know what A, G, C and T stand for to do phylogenetics.

  5. While I can't speak for the sciences, my experience has been that interdisciplinarity is becoming more and more important precisely because of what happens when individual disciplines butt up against one another. My home university currently has two interdisciplinary centres, a long-standing one for the humanities, and a shiny new one for the sciences.
    I'm currently working on a MA in the Digital Humanities, which is on the front lines of collaborative interdisciplinary scholarship on the humanities side. I'm not sure how much of this carries over to the sciences, but humanities scholarship has traditionally followed a lone-scholar model, where one person invests their entire career into becoming a subject-matter expert. This model has been steadily breaking down, in no small part due to the desire to disseminate research findings through various web technologies. Most of the projects I've encountered of late have involved scholars from several disciplines within and without the humanities, and the resource pooling has produced some truly remarkable things.
    Extrapolating from that to the sciences, my strong suspicion is that the more people are willing to go outside of their personal comfort zones and talk to the person in the next lab or building, and the more the research environment supports it, the more interesting and fruitful questions will be raised and explored. Redefining the diversity of the sciences according to goals rather than departments could encourage more cross-conversations, but its success comes down to whether the individuals can be convinced to take advantage.

  6. But wouldn't setting up centers to work on specific problems destroy the entire point of academia? One of, if not the largest, benefit academia provides to society is working on understanding things that don't have immediate applications.  Nuclear and particle physics were studied in their own right before nuclear medicine and x-rays could become possible. Gauss and Riemann studied the abstract geometry of curved spaces long before Einstein used that math to develop general relativity long before relativistic corrections make accurate GPS possible. Examples like those go on and on.
    Future engineers and inventors need new science to build on. For many fields, industry scientists are already working on the problems with immediate applications. Pharmaceutical companies are obscenely profitable because academics do much of the basic testing of new drugs and hand them over to an industry that spends very little on R&D. University patents are a different issue, but I would hate to see future progress stymied by a myopic focus on solving specific problems now.
    That is not to say that the departmental structure of Universities is optimal. However, from my experience at least, physical organization is far more important than bureaucratic organization. The idea of having people in different departments working on similar problems being physically colocated is very useful. I just don't want to see 'problems' conflated with 'products'.

    I think the whole academic system is overly complicated and wasteful. One thing I like about studying music is that no one takes it too seriously as a "field." One of my teachers didn't even want to tell me how he decided on grades because "you shouldn't be here to get a grade." (answer: I'm not but that kind of things till matters) If you are at a good place there is also a lot of opportunity to learn things outside your "subject" too. If you are a classical french horn player with some experience singing opera and you want to learn how improvise while scat singing in a jazz context, here's how to get started. My university even has grants where people can go to other countries to learn about arts related things which are sometimes very different to how we tend to approach things here. 
    There's also a general understanding that if you a paper that says "performance degree," no one is going to be like "Okay you can come play here." No one cares if you have a degree, so if you just do the bare minimum to get a degree you are pretty much wasting your time. You should be learning about things on your own, seeking out people/resources in the community, etc. 
    Of course, then there is the issue of why we are even learning about these things in a university at all then. Often the answer is "My parents want me too" or, less often, "I got a scholarship so it's cheaper than private lessons with equivelent people in the community." Not always good reasons. 
    Scientists have a bit more reason, I think. A tuba is expensive, but it's easier to get a decent tuba than to get a room full of super awesome science machines that do amazing science things like spinning around really fast or putting chunks of metal on fire. As near as I can tell that's pretty much the only benefit to universities for aspiring scientists that couldn't be had more directly another way, given that those ways were socially supported to an extent they aren't now.
    I can't help feeling like that with the tons and tons of money that is poured into universities those resources in terms machines, chemicals, etc couldn't be made available in another way too though. Maybe even in a way that doesn't involve your head spontaneously combusting from the inside out or something after you make a science mistake. Or black holes. I was worried about the black holes but we still seem to be okay. Thank you science people for not making black holes.

  8. I’m really ambivalent about these interdisciplinary centres – in my opinion, as a synthetic chemist, it makes sense to stick all the chemists in one place because then everyone who needs the mass spec is close to it :P Interdisciplinary collaboration is going to happen regardless, because it’s necessary, but I don’t think the architecture necessarily helps. E.g. Say a synthetic group is working on methodologies for making a particular chemical moiety (say, 2,5-disubstituted pyridines). Chances are it’ll have a myriad of uses (anti-cancer, anti-malarial, scaffold for polymer stuff, self-assembling). If you stuck them in a cancer centre, the cancer side of their research would flourish, but they’d have issues if their compounds turned out to be not-so-promising for cancer treatment after all, and the polymer stuff took off. Additionally, they wouldn’t be around colleagues who could be making great progress with 3,5-disubstituted pyridines. Since the day-to-day business of doing chemistry (or biology, or physics, or whatever) is very specifically chemical in nature, I think interdisciplinary collaboration is successful with just a few meetings a month, but immediate problems are best solved by talking people who use the same equipment as you.

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