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Come Together

Biology is getting bigger.

By | February 14, 2005

Biology is getting bigger. Lab equipment is larger, better, and most importantly, faster. Scientists collect billions of data points in high-throughput "discovery science," potentially yielding a whole new level of detail. We're no longer just looking through the keyhole of biological interactions; we're actually forcing open the door. All this technology, and its ability to give us a far richer understanding of biology, is to be celebrated, as Peer Schatz, CEO of Qiagen, a leading life science company, does on page 40 of this issue.

But what does such technology, and the enormous teams of scientists it requires, mean for the individual scientist? Are scientists destined to become drones in some superfactory of data generation and computer analysis? Or can we maintain science is a personal pursuit? If you can't control your own research destiny, how attractive will science be?

Consider two models of the large-scale organization of science, which are experiments in organization just as they are attempts to create systems biology. On the one hand, there are high-profile projects such as the Alliance for Cell Signaling (AfCS)1 and the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB).2 Both sport outstanding leadership and ambitious, well-defined scientific goals. AfCS appears to have a command-structure approach, generating data based on a predetermined blueprint, while ISB has brought a group of specialists together to share facilities and technologies.

An alternative exists: self-organization of groups of scientists into virtual teams, or consortia, that share a common interest and bring complementary expertise. I've just returned from the inaugural meeting of just such a group in Japan, which asked me to speak on consortia in biology. The meeting brought together experimentalists and modelers around a key area of cell biology. Although most participants had never met before, they formed an instant rapport, and over two days they were able to map out an initial set of criteria, in terms of organization, experimental systems, data generation, and the sharing of data. This didn't mean sacrificing their personal interests to the goals of the group. On the contrary, it was the collective brains trust and distinctive approaches of the partners that was most valuable.

You might guess which of these models I think has the best chance of succeeding. The ISB model of relocation of researchers by topic on a large scale is not viable, even if it were desirable. A command structure such as that of the AfCS has certain advantages, but it takes away the intimate, special way of doing science that characterizes biology. We need a structure that is more sympathetic to the desires of biologists to be intellectually independent.

The Scientist will publish the manifesto of this bottom-up, big science group in the near future. The organization will be low-key, with no central management and no massive block funding. It will be organized around the traditional approach of small, independent research teams chipping away at pet problems. Science will remain a personal pursuit, with scientists maintaining control of their own research. But the team's efforts will be integrated and designed as a virtuous circle of modeling of the system driving experiments that will in turn tune the model, generating more experiments.

The result will be important contributions to a broader agenda, bringing a fuller understanding to a complex and vital area of biology. At least as important will be what I anticipate is the proof of principle of this important strategy. In the words of John Lennon: Come together, right now.

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