Evolution of science

By Lauren Urban Evolution of science Science is made up of cliques. Throughout Alex Shneider’s career, he has noticed certain people drawn to certain types of science, and certain types of grant proposals always being funded. Shneider, the founder and CEO of Cure Lab, a vaccine biotech based in Massachusetts, came up with a theory to explain why these cliques occur. At first, it wasn’t too popular. Shneider concluded that a certain type

By | May 1, 2010

Evolution of science

Science is made up of cliques. Throughout Alex Shneider’s career, he has noticed certain people drawn to certain types of science, and certain types of grant proposals always being funded. Shneider, the founder and CEO of Cure Lab, a vaccine biotech based in Massachusetts, came up with a theory to explain why these cliques occur. At first, it wasn’t too popular.

Shneider concluded that a certain type of scientist is attracted to “first-stage science,” in which new concepts and ideas are introduced to the world. Two examples are James Watson and Francis Crick, who helped initiate modern molecular biology in the middle of the 20th century by describing the double helix of DNA.

By studying the scientists who founded these and other fields, Shneider concluded that first-stage scientists have to be imprecise, untethered by what’s known at the time, and—sometimes—even inaccurate. Other scientists had tried to craft a periodic table before Dmitry Mendeleyev, but kept restricting it to discovered elements. Mendeleyev was successful because he left empty positions and hypothesized what those elements might look like. First-stage scientists can’t be afraid to make mistakes (Antoine Lavoisier thought “light” and “caloric” were chemical elements), and ignore negative feedback from scientists who pooh-pooh their ideas.

Second-stage scientists, in contrast, are often recruited by “first-stagers” to formulate the techniques and language to develop the first stage. In biology, classic second-stagers include Ulrich Laemmli (protein electrophoresis) and Stephen Altschul (basic local alignment search tool, or BLAST). Here, Shneider reasons, scientists attracted to this stage have ingenuity, inventiveness, and high risk tolerance.

Are you a first, second, third, or fourth stage scientist?

Third-stagers then use those new tools to answer new questions, thereby coming up with new insights and more questions. For instance, once molecular biology emerged, biologists used the tools of molecular biology to look at their fields from that perspective. According to Shneider, it is this stage that has the “most employees” and “publishes the most papers.” Third-stage researchers differ greatly from first-stage researchers; they are more methodical, detail-oriented, and concerned with “absolute correctness,” he says.

The final stage is the fourth stage, where scientists chronicle what’s been learned and apply knowledge for practical purposes, but produce few new discoveries. (One example is anatomy, Shneider suggests). This stage is crucial, he argue—without it, all the third-stage data couldn’t be organized—just look at the many journals which publish third-stage data that now also publish accompanying review journals. Fourth-stage researchers tend to remember a lot of up-to-date information, are well informed about their fields, and prone to writing. Take, for example, Benjamin Lewin, creator and editor of Cell, who contributed enormously to molecular biology outside of a lab. (Conversely, scientists who excel at first- or second-stage science may not be great writers or synthesizers of information, Shneider reasons, which calls into question journals’ tendency to ask scientists who have discovered or invented something useful to write reviews.)

Other scientists have attempted to classify science—notably, Thomas Kuhn, who suggested that the scientific process consisted of three stages. Shneider’s categories—which instead focus on staging individual scientists, separate from the stage of their field—should help dictate how young scientists choose a field where their interests and talents will be most useful, Shneider says. For instance, even if a student loves The Double Helix, she may “doom” herself by studying molecular biology, since what she may love are the elements of first-stage science, not the subject. She may be better off opting for cognitive science, currently at its first- and second-stages, he reasons.

If your grant is rejected, perhaps it was reviewed by scientists in the wrong “stage.”

Shneider believes there may be other major implications of this system. He says he’s repeatedly seen innovative ideas (first-stage science) get rejected for funding, and suspects this is because most reviewers are third-stagers, who struggle to connect to the idea. As a result, Shneider suggests that first-stage scientists integrate feedback on their proposals from third-stagers (even if it goes against the author’s instinct). More generally, he says, funding agencies are reluctant to risk money on “radical ideas.” How can a funding agency support first-stage science when most of its reviewers are in the third stage, therefore have a totally different mentality than a first-stage scientist? “Political correctness restricts intellectual and academic freedom, and stops scientists from testing certain hypotheses.”

Shneider considers himself a third-stage virologist and a first-stage analyst of scientific thought. The paper (presenting a first-stage concept) was initially rejected by several third-stage journals, and even his colleagues discredited the ideas, says Schneider. (One journal told him that papers on scientific thought should be commissioned and not unsolicited.) When he would present these ideas at meetings, he would often be “attacked” by the crowd. However, he says that afterwards individual scientists would approach him and tell him that his ideas were correct. For a while, he thought the paper would never be published. But like other first-stage scientists before him, he kept at it (Trends Biochem Sci, 34:217–23, 2009).

His friends warned him that this paper may make scientists resentful towards him, but he insists the paper is meant to describe the various stages only, not to judge them. “My paper states that third stagers are neither more nor less valuable than first stagers. They just have a different type of talent.”

Michael Galperin, an F1000 Faculty Member and genomicist at the National Institutes of Health, helped select this paper as one of F1000’s Hidden Jewels, meaning papers from less obvious journals, and describes it as a good “first step” in understanding the development and evolution in science. He chose to review the paper because there have been “no real studies on science in the last 20 years.” He describes himself as somewhere in the second or third stages.


Avatar of: Laxman Phadke

Laxman Phadke

Posts: 1

May 6, 2010

Is my view wrong?\n\nAs evolution continues, one class stops sexual contact within itself, takes a rather separate path. Soon the two factions evolve differently. Perhaps one takes risks, the other remains dormant. The risk takers' brains developed differently. Thus Monkey remained monkey even today and risk takers became humans?\n\nPerhaps Natural Selection in primates successively involved contribution from "will" a brain function. Here I assume that Human brain was not a "Phase Transition" as in melting of a solid at a certain temperature, but took days (many moons as the saying goes) - centuries, centuries of centuries of .. .\n\nAnyone?
Avatar of: Richard Gordon

Richard Gordon

Posts: 3

May 23, 2010

?Does the current situation in biomedical grant funding, for example, create a situation when all truly new ideas have a better chance to find their way through private investors or in countries other than the USA, for example. And, if it is so, what should the Congress do to break the vicious cycle??\nFrom: Shneider, A.M. (2009). Four stages of a scientific discipline; four types of scientist. Trends in Biochemical Sciences 34(5), 217-223.\n \nPositive feedback is rampant in grant agencies*, and it is helpful, if discouraging, for Shneider to identify the power grab with personality types needed for scientific advance. In his balanced view, all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others, and only a wise overseeing body like the US Congress can see through this nonsense. We certainly can?t expect scientists to run their own house, can we?\n\n*Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28; 16(4), 232-233.\n\nPoulin, B.J. & R. Gordon (2001). How to organize science funding: the new Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), an opportunity to vastly increase innovation. Canadian Public Policy 27(1), 95-112.\n \n\n \n


Posts: 29

June 1, 2010

Why are the "types" of scientists described here referred to as "cliques" (my online dictionary defines clique as "A small exclusive group of friends or associates")? In my admittedly limited experience, scientist of the first type tend to be the go-it-aloners whose intense focus on their own theories may attract adherents, but not others of the same type (who are similarly self-focused). For the same reason, type 1 scientists might not be interested in spending their time reviewing the proposals of others; hence they are rare on grant committees and their views underrepresented when funds are handed out.\n\nIgnoring the depressing focus on who gets the credit and who gets the funding, I found valuable the observation that, if you knew what "type" of science you found most fulfilling, you might choose an area where that type of work is most productive.\n\n


Posts: 31

June 1, 2010

Laxman Phadke commented that perhaps risk takers and risk aversers might evolve into different species. It is possible if the environment remained constant. The reason humankind has spread all over the globe is its adaptability, which occurs because both traits--risk taking and risk avoiding--are useful under different conditions. Science needs both, but is at risk for losing the innovators. When one group takes control and suppresses the other, whether intentionally or not, science is in danger. \n\nScience has become exceedingly risk averse over the past few decades. Grants often are funded not on the merit of the idea but rather on the soundess of the design and how well it removes risk. All that is needed to sink an innovative grant is one risk averse reviewer. I think the odds of drawing 3 risk-averse reviewers is much higher than drawing 3 risk-takers. Hence, really innovative work struggles to be funded and science has been adapting to a constant environment of risk averseness by weeding out the first and second stage practitioners. The NIH is attempting to change this situation. Good luck!

June 1, 2010

While reading a recent online article (Mobile phones and bees: shoddy research helps no one By\nIan Douglas http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/7778401/Mobile-phones-responsible-for-disappearance-of-honey-bee.html ) several observations came to mind. \n\nSimplistic poorly designed ?studies? abound in every field. The trends of recent decades- specialization, corporate influence, pre-determined result orientation, ambition over curiosity- all have conspired to undermine science fundamentals. \n\nWhile I do suspect that microwave and other radiation proliferations have had profound if subtle effects on living creatures, the bottom line is that as new technologies come along they are just not adequately tested. Whether it is gene modification, nanotechnology, wireless devices, the vast chemical saturation of our environment ?..we see products rushed on to the market without any real consideration given to risks. It seems to me that catastrophe will inevitably result. \n\nThe scientific establishment was never perfect, but I doubt we realize just how badly it has been hollowed out in recent years. \n
Avatar of: Tarakad Raman

Tarakad Raman

Posts: 31

June 2, 2010

Thank you for mentioning Ian Douglas's article (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/iandouglas/100005223/mobile-phones-and-bees-shoddy-research-helps-no-one/). The paper by Panjab University scientists was published in "Current Science" (http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/25may2010/1376.pdf). The thoughts that occurred to me on reading that paper were nearly the same as Ian Douglas's -- "shoddy research". I think the editorial and scientific review system of the journal has also been "shoddy" vis-a-vis this paper.

June 2, 2010

Very interesting analysis of science evolution. I would like to suggest the presence of a cyclic component in the process, where stage 4 scientists are not just chronicle and catalog, they actually synthesize the information constructing the most up-to-date conceptual model of the processes and paving the way for next wave of first-stagers to take off. With regard to funding, yes, identifying and funding the first stage research is undoubtedly critically important, but I would also argue that putting most funding in the third stage is appropriate, because to be able to apply the knowledge we need to know the right answer, not just a potential new question. If anything, I think the fourth stage research is severely undervalued in life sciences, resulting in production of a lot of knowledge but very limited understanding.
Avatar of: Alison McCook

Alison McCook

Posts: 68

August 4, 2010

The original paper is here: Trends Biochem Sci, 34:217?23, 2009\n\nThanks!\nAlison McCook, Deputy Editor

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