Two speakers at TEDMED, 82 year-old E.O. Wilson and 34 year-old Jacob Scott, call for a balancing of experts and generalists in life sciences
On stage here at the Kennedy Center two separate speakers at TEDMED talked about the perils of minutia. One is a world-famous maestro of the tiny, an ant expert, and more recently a philosopher of what he calls "consilience" - the linking of different principals into a comprehensive theory. The other is a young physician training to become a rare species in biomedicine: a theoretical biologist.
Both speakers decried the descent of science into ever more specialized silos without an equally critical emphasis on linking all of the details and data into integrative models.
"We have too many dots in biological science that don't get connected," said Jacob Scott, a 34 year-old physician and PhD candidate at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida. In his short career, Scott has personally embraced a number of dots, having trained and served as an astrophysicist, nuclear submarine engineer in the U.S. Navy, an oncologist, and a mathematician.
At the moment Scott is working towards a PhD that combines biology and mathematics in a one-man special program that itself is an integration of the oncology program at Moffitt and the Centre for Mathematical Biology at Oxford University in the UK.
"The nature of biological science has changed from the standard paradigm where theory and experiment go hand in hand," he said in an interview after his TEDMED talk. "It's changed to a world where tech and experiment are sort of having a tryst, if you will, and theory is lagging behind. So we have a knowledge gap, an understanding gap. We have all of this amazing data, and these amazing measurements, but we have no idea what it means."
The problem with churning out masses of data without understanding has been a major theme this year at TEDMED and other meetings of this ilk - how to cope with the tsunami of information coming from everything from digitizing medical records to sequencing more people's DNA.
The 82 year-old on stage was evolutionary biologist and best-selling author E.O. Wilson, whose pioneering works on ants led him to be a genial firebrand on the subject of scientists from one discipline jumping into other disciplines.
"The best way to broaden yourself is to be curious and interested in different subjects as you go along," said Wilson in an interview, "and to realize that the best strategy for a successful career in science is to bring two subjects together that haven't been effectively brought together before."
"You need people who are the world's expert and the world's generalist," he said, a man who knows how to do this after decades of experience.
But it's not all that easy, said Scott, for people like him starting out in their careers in medicine. "Being a generalist isn't good for your career," he said. "You don't get grants, and you aren't first author or senior author on papers."
He believes there should be special grants and incentives for medical students and others to learn to be generalists - to be dot-connectors, or conciliators of specialties and of data.
Efforts are afoot to bring more balance to the yin and yang of experts and integrators. For instance, the National Institutes of Health has introduced interdisciplinary programs that link, say, the study of environmental factors and genetics, and the National Academies of Sciences penned a report in 2010 calling for a massive shift to integration in "A New Biology for the 21st Century".
Last year I authored a study for the Kauffman Foundation that addressed this issue called "The Personalized Health Project: Identifying the gaps between discovery and application in the life sciences, and proposed solutions."
Nonprofits and institutes such as Washington-based FasterCures and the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle also have pushed for a new science of connectiveness in then life sciences.
These efforts have done little, however, to counter the dominance of the specialists with the integrators, though the airing of this dilemma by scientists spanning the decades gives one hope that this mountains versus anthill struggle is heading towards a more balanced approach.