Monday, January 07, 2008

Ask Sydney Brenner: Should We Fund More Scientists?

"I think the profession of science will change markedly over the next 25 years, because I don't think it can last in its present structure. The present structure is assumed on infinite growth. In other words, every student expects to be a post-doc, every post-doc expects to be an assistant professor with five students, every assistant professor expects to be an associate professor with eight post-docs and five students, and so on and so forth. And that can't last. And I think the "industrial" structure will have to change. And what I think will happen in the future is that, I think, people will do research for only part of their lives. Research with very few exceptions is really the job for young people. Largely because, as I've said, they contain the required ignorance that is necessary for this. And I think it would be perfectly reasonable for people to do research for five years or eight years of their lives, and then go on to do other things like be doctors or be farmers, or something else in society.

But I think the profession of the professional scientist with a career structure will change. Because I think it may well be that doing biology will become like the old days of doing natural history, but with molecular tools. And I think we have to have some solution of that if we are to simply maintain the advance, because all of history shows that notwithstanding the great growth and professionalization of science, the number of important scientists has remained constant, roughly speaking, since the 17th century. So, the point is, as long as those people gravitate to the subject, that'll be fine."


- Sydney Brenner, Peoples Archive


7 comments:

rob said...

the number of important scientists has remained constant, roughly speaking, since the 17th century.
Maybe the ones he can remember off the top of his head or something. The accelerated rate of discovery in this day and age is not due to the same number of 'important' scientists. That would suggest that the 'important' scientists of today are more productive or something. I think that even the 'unimportant' scientists make progress that may not be grand, but contribute to the foundation of great discoveries.
I do however, I think, agree largely with what he is saying.

Bayman said...

Yes, it would have been interesting to hear exactly what Brenner thinks an "important scientist" is. Maybe one way to see this is to go back through the history of human knowledge, trace its evolution and find out who was the first to propose experimentally verified concepts that have survived to the present day. One can also look at the circumstances surrounding the formation of novel ideas and upon what other knowledge they advanced. It's fairly easy to do within a given field, for example if you think "what are the important concepts or techniques that I used in the lab today" you can go look up who was the first to describe them in the literature or who everyone else cited when they talked about it. These are the important scientists in one's own field I suppose. I guess basically it comes down to who everyone else cites.

I think I interpreted 'unimportant' differently than you, because I would define importance in science as any advance or discovery, no matter how "small" that contributes to the foundation of important discoveries. Any piece of the puzzle if you will, big or small, so long as it fits the big picture properly, is important.

When Brenner refers to careerism driving "unimportant science" my impression was that he was referring to the significant number of people today who are employed as scientists but are essentially generating meaningless information which will never contribute to the foundation of anything (except the individual's career), either because it's generated outside of a proper scientific context (irrelevant question, poorly designed experiments, etc.) or because it only verifies things we already know.

Kevin Z said...

But I think the profession of the professional scientist with a career structure will change. Because I think it may well be that doing biology will become like the old days of doing natural history, but with molecular tools.

What does he even mean by this?

Bayman said...

I take it he's referring to the fact that naturalists did so as a hobby (and were therefore usually independently wealthy). (See the post on Alfred Russell Wallace above for more on this.) Maybe today shell collectors like Kevin Z get paid the big bucks, but apparently zoology hasn't always been such a profitable endeavor.

So maybe today for example we need amateur gene collectors who go out to collect DNA and get sequence for all the life out there. And then we wait for the next Darwin/ARW to come along (probably some computer geek) and make sense of it all for us.

Kevin Z said...

But he is saying that the professional academic, as we know of it today, will be but the armchair naturalist of the victorian era? i hardly believe that. Universities don't fund naturalists anymore. Zoology has never been profitable nor will it ever be because, in part, it has little immediate industrial application.

But I do agree that more amateur gene hunters will be more common. And why not? All the tools / software are available for free over the internet as are the sequence data. If you live near a university, you go to their library and download pdfs freely. Or do what I do, email people randomly and ask for pdfs.

The more gene data generated the better, so long as the methods are standardized and the DNA is quality. How do we check that?

Bayman said...

How do we check that?

Redundancies? If multiple people independently submit the same sequence? I guess the same way they verified reports of new species in the old days?

I think I agree with both of you that as technology makes sequencing becomes so trivial that anyone with google can do it in their basement, it will become more and more unreasonable to be training and funding PhD scientists to do this. So the "important" scientists need to turn look forward to different pursuits - problem solving rather than information collecting and cataloguing. Just my take.

Anonymous said...

How about other fields of science, I hardly think they can advance if science was researched in the Victorian style, by independent singular individuals.

I'm young, and thus probably ignorant of the goings on in the 'profession' of science, but I would be devastated if research ended up to bring limited ones 'ignorant' years, I see my self as a scientist in some shape or form for the rest of my life