The questions that society requires science to answer now and in the coming decades are increasingly complex, and at the same time, the tools of science are becoming increasingly accessible to the broader public. What were previously activities restricted to a few are now being enriched by significant citizen participation, even in the garages of science-interested citizens exploring their curiosities in a DIY do it yourself way. And that is happening not just in the United States. We live in an increasingly globalized world, with greater accessibility to some scientific tools and data than ever before. The technological and cost barriers are dropping rapidly, which changes the innovation ecosystem of biology who can play and what is possible.
Change within Science
Nearly every per- son interviewed by AIBS noted that the greatest challenges and opportunities of modern life science include the shift to cross-disciplinary science and the new requirements to manage the vast amounts of data being produced. There are many dimensions to these changes.
Although the life sciences, broadly, are crucially important to answer- ing the emerging scientific questions, there is a crucial need for “respect for a multidisciplinary perspective. We need to take the time to listen to one another and see what each has to offer the other. We need everyone (across all sciences) working together.
There is a trend toward big science a significant force in how we organize and collaborate to answer questions. Big data, trans-disciplinary research, and bio-complexity are crucial areas for investment, but nearly all of the respondents cautioned that investment in the new should not be undertaken at the cost of continuing traditional disciplinary research. The slow pace of accumulation of essential natural history knowledge for many economically important species, from fisheries to crop pests, has repeatedly hindered the development of robust, predictive policies that would benefit humanity. In many industries, this has resulted in repeated failures of sustainable management, even though these attractive systems are the very ones for which natural history knowledge should be most complete.
There is a changing intellectual property structure in the life sciences. It is still the case that each institution has its own rules for collaboration, on intellectual property, and concerning the right to claim something as one’s own. Competitiveness can potentially squelch sharing, which may inhibit collaboration. The old model was, for example, to develop a drug and then “patent the hell out of it. The new and potentially more collaborative model involves open-source systems using repositories of standardized biological parts that can be readily accessed and shared.
A significant investment is being made by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in cyber-infrastructure. The Cyber-infrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering is a funding mechanism designed to provide a comprehensive, integrated, sustain- able, and secure cyber-infrastructure to accelerate research and education and new functional capabilities in computational and data-intensive science and engineering, thereby transforming our ability to effectively address and solve the many complex problems facing science and society. A vision and strategy for that infrastructure was outlined and describes for the complexity of the task, including meeting increased storage demands, long-term sustainability, curation, and providing new analysis that will drive discovery.
Great advances in the life and geosciences have been made in developing a cyber-infrastructure that meets the inseparability and integration requirements considered necessary for this global data currency. “Finding solutions to these last two pieces is the holy grail in unlocking the challenge, an initiative to create a community-driven knowledge and data management system for the geosciences. His team also co-directs an international planning effort for global e-infrastructure and data management. Allison likens the emerging cyber-infrastructure to the data version of the World Wide Web and says that the research community is well on its way to having that capacity up and running, noting that “it’s within our reach that a global cyber-infrastructure will be accessible and usable for the 90% of individual scientific investigators who constitute the long tail of scientists who don’t need or use supercomputers.
Beyond the infrastructure itself, concerns expressed by a senior science adviser at NSF highlight the fact that creating such an infrastructure has broad implications for how we approach scientific workforce and training needs. We are going to need new quantification methods to integrate everything. We will need enough modeling skills to see what the data can show us. The biologist of the future will need to be able to address this, but the question is [whether] our curricula really prepare students for that. How are we going to train the biologist of the future? How are they going to learn the language of science, the culture of science have an understanding across the board? Scientists must have a strong grounding in quantitative skills and related areas from day one. It is important to train individuals with a broad set of skills to enable them to deal with complex systems and the overall complexity of life.
Change within Society
Peter Linett, owner of a start-up business called Culture Kettle, holds a unique position as a market researcher who helps cultural institutions (in both the arts and the sciences) understand the mechanisms by which the changing dynamics of how people interact in the twenty-first century affect how institutions might alter their business models to stay relevant.
In his presentation to science festival leaders at the International Public Science Events Conference 2014, Linett described what he sees as a moment of punctuated equilibrium in the arc of culture. Linett gave detail to this metaphor: Following a period of relative stability from the late nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century, technology and other less tangible forces have led to the current period of rapid change a flurry of innovation, experimentation, and new models of production and consumption premised on new cultural assumptions and values very different from those of the previous period. Linett added that, once we settle into them, those new values and approaches may prove durable for a number of decades, at least fundamentally (although technology will continue to reshape things rapidly on the surface). We may enter a long period of relative stability, a twenty-first-century set of cultural norms. But for now, we are in that transitional period, which can be especially difficult for the institutions and producers of culture that excelled in the previous period. These are not easy times, but they are exciting.