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.
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.
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.