Why do we need the “driver’s license”?

When I was a trainee in neuroscience, there were plenty of examples of physicists who decided that figuring out the brain was to be their next big idea. They did just fine. You’ve probably heard of them.

Growing up with two parents who had both received their doctoral degrees in philosophy (!) but were, in actuality, running a neurophysiology lab, further inured me to the notion of being scientifically siloed by our degree title.

These days I lead two teams that aren’t doing neuroscience at all. One works on the future of AI, the other at the intersection of ecology and microbiology. At the Institute I led for sixteen years, my closest colleague was a biophysicist whose scientific passion was astrobiology. At the end of his life he was deeply involved in thinking about d-orbital catalysis in chemistry.

So increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that excellent science can be done by anyone with sufficient creativity and a willingness to team up with like-minded collaborators. But: with the caveat that the team as a whole has the requisite methodological skills.

This I think has implications for the future of team science–which I’ve spoken about at length.

Susan Cain on Group Think in today’s NYT

The piece is here. Note that in spite of the main case being for creative solitude, Cain acknowledges:

Indeed, recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.) The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.

Team science versus Single Investigator

Certainly across biosciences, a notable trend has been the lists of authors for single papers getting longer. This is especially true for the high impact journals and reflects the evolution of the practice of scientific research from individual investigator to large teams of scientists all working on various parts of a single question or problem. Part of this evolution is due to the need to use many methodologies to completely tell a single scientific “story” –in many cases considerably more techniques than any one single investigator can manage.

This team approach has been explicitly pushed in recent years, most saliently by the recently retired NIH director, Elias Zerhouni. There are some real problems however with the team approach. One of the most important is that maintaining quality control over the entire corpus of experiments that make up a team-authored paper becomes potentially challenging. An additional complication is that with large teams, who actually did what becomes opaque to the reviewer.
I’m not advocating a wholesale return to single PI science in biology–the subject matter has become too complex for many questions in the discipline. Rather, I’m urging a renewed appreciation for what can be accomplished in a single PI laboratory, where, in outstanding cases, a single creative mind can design an elegant set of experiments that like a fine gem, outshine the industrial output of large team labs.
Going further, it seems to me that with appropriate Science 2.0 sharing approaches, we may see a new renaissance of individual investigators re-using data produced by very large groups in imaginative ways that lead to real scientific progress.