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Monday, July 11, 2005

"Biochemistry Without a License" 

That is how biochemist Erwin Chargaff characterized molecular biology. At the time, it was a rogue field, made up largely of people with assorted backgrounds (most famously a physicist and an ornithologist) scrambling to discover how things work.

Nowadays, molecular biology is a discipline in its own right,* science has become even bigger and more complicated and more interesting, and people are claiming that we're in a "new era" (beware of anyone who uses this term, under any circumstances) where we will need Big Interdisciplinary Teams of scientists to solve problems.

I've been a fan of interdisciplinary-ness since forever, even before I read Consilience, which verbalizes many ideas better than I can, but not this way. I firmly believe that people need to be interdisciplinary, not teams; the surest way for nothing to get done is to appoint a committee.

An essay in the inaugural edition of the Public Library of Science Journal PLoS Computational Biology, by Sean Eddy, calls for such a pull back away from super-specialization: the establishment of antedisciplinary science. A key passage:

Focusing on interdisciplinary teams instead of interdisciplinary people reinforces standard disciplinary boundaries rather than breaking them down. An interdisciplinary team is a committee in which members identify themselves as an expert in something else besides the actual scientific problem at hand, and abdicate responsibility for the majority of the work because it's not their field. Expecting a team of disciplinary scientists to develop a new field is like sending a team of monolingual diplomats to the United Nations.

I couldn't agree more. I remember how helpful it was to chat with geneticist friends of mine while I was doing my psychology research; they just saw problems differently and could suggest approaches I never would have thought about. Imagine if I'd had the genetics background to do that all myself! Science is too broad, and too interconnected for researchers to not have at least passing familiarity with all of it. As much as I hate chemistry (and I really do), I know not only how much better a biologist it makes me, but how much easier it makes learning physics (I like examples to which I can relate).

*Biochemists still tend to look down on molecular biologists, but I suspect that this is because, like all chemists in my experience, they are still trying to compensate for no being physicists.

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