Science at the Leading Edge

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Science  06 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5659, pp. 729
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5659.729

The theme of this year's AAAS annual meeting—“Science at the Leading Edge”—conjures up images of where the scientific enterprise is going and how it will look in the future. It also raises questions: Are we really ready to exploit to the fullest extent the opportunities we will encounter? The past decade saw dramatic changes that reshaped the current context; what do these portend about how science and technology will evolve? For example, “big science” finally came to biology in the form of the Human Genome Project, long after the physical sciences began tackling really big questions in large groups and on large scales. The life sciences, long dominated by individual investigators working alone or in small groups, will never be the same as we experience large follow-on projects such as exploring the proteome or mapping haplotypes in the human genome.

Moreover, new technologies are now driving scientific advances as much as the other way around. These technologies are enabling novel approaches to old questions and are posing brand-new ones. In my own field, techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography now enable us to look into the brains of awake, behaving human beings and watch their minds in action. Such studies have revolutionized our understanding of such complex issues as mental illness and drug addiction.

We are learning another important lesson: that no field stands alone. Progress in any one domain is absolutely dependent on progress in many other disciplines. For example, these applications of brain imaging technology depend on simultaneous progress in chemistry and physics. Similarly, progress in the information sciences is a prerequisite for dealing with the tremendous quantities of new data being generated in fields such as genomics, with its huge sequence arrays, or astronomy, with databanks generated from modern radiotelescopes.

In a related way, we are now seeing more and more truly interdisciplinary science. Thirty years ago, one might have called Science a multidisciplinary journal; after all, it has long published papers from many different fields. But now many of our papers involve teams of scientists from many specialties, bringing diverse expertise to bear in an integrated rather than merely parallel way. The fact that this interdisciplinarity characterizes so much of today's most exciting work may portend the gradual demise of single-discipline science.

These trends suggest a need to reexamine the organization, structure, and funding strategies of both academic institutions and governmental science-supporting agencies. For example, in the United States, take-turn budget strategies often give disproportionately large funding increases to some individual fields or funding agencies, while at the same time badly underfunding others. Those strategies can actually delay advances, because they work against the need for simultaneous progress in numerous fields brought about by their growing interdependence.

Funding for technology development, so critical to future scientific advances, has always been a stepchild of granting agencies and their review committees, who have seen it as insufficiently hypothesis-driven. The U.S. Department of Energy's Facilities for the Future of Science initiative is one response to this problem, and the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation program is another. However, given its centrality to the future of science, we need a wider array of efforts to support technology development.

My greatest concern is that our scientific institutions are not well positioned to promote the interdisciplinarity that characterizes so much of science at the leading edge. Academic institutions are still organized primarily into discrete fields of learning. Review and reward systems based on eminence or publication within one's own disciplinary “silo” may penalize interdisciplinary work. The increasing number of cross-departmental, interdisciplinary research centers in universities is welcome, but most academics are still evaluated for tenure and promotion within their departments.

In many government agencies, the processes and committees that help decide which projects will receive support are also heavily disciplinary in character; they often are not well positioned to promote interdisciplinary research. Some head-on attempts to approach this problem, such as the new National Institutes of Health Roadmap Initiative, with its explicit focus on interdisciplinary Research Teams of the Future, are encouraging. Looking forward, if we want to ensure that society reaps the full promise of scientific progress, we clearly will need more than just increased support. We also will need focused attention to the organization and reward structures of our core institutions.

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