Adventures in Ethics and Science

About three weeks ago, I was in Washington, D.C. for the NSF IGERT 2010 Project Meeting. I was invited to speak on a panel on Digital Science (with co-panelists Chris Impey, Moshe Pritzker, and Jean-Claude Bradley, who blogged about it), and later in the meeting I helped to facilitate some discussions of ethics case studies.

I’ll have more to say about our panel in the next post, but first I wanted to share some broad observations about the meeting.

IGERT stands for “Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship”, and the program is described thusly:

IGERT is the National Science Foundation’s flagship interdisciplinary training program, educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers by building on the foundations of their disciplinary knowledge with interdisciplinary training.

Collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires teamwork provides students with the tools to become leaders in the science and engineering of the future. Diversity among the students contributes to their preparation to solve large and complex research problems of significant scientific and societal importance at the national and international level. IGERT students obtain the personal and professional skills to succeed in the careers of the 21st century. Since 1998 the IGERT program has made 215 awards to over 100 lead universities in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. IGERT has provided funding for nearly 5,000 graduate students.

There was much talk at the meeting of “getting out of the disciplinary silos” that are traditional university departments. The kind of scientific outcome the IGERT program is trying to move beyond is captured by a cartoon by S. Harris whose caption reads, “I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough, but I’m also at that point where chemistry leaves off and physics begins, so I’ll have to drop the whole thing.” Given that the phenomena we seek to understand don’t generally respect our neat disciplinary boundaries, understanding them can require doing work from different sides of those boundaries. The strategy seems to be one that involves not just breadth but depth — serious competence in each of the interdisciplinary tools brought to bear on a research problem.

I think this is a good thing. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as half-assed interdisciplinary work, so it was heartening to see a large group of PIs and trainees committed to (as Homer Simpson might put it) putting their whole asses into the job.

Interestingly, though, in talking to some of the trainees at the meeting I got the sense that what counts as interdisciplinary is in the eye of the beholder. In some cases, it means drawing on conceptual and experimental tools from three different areas in biology, while in other cases it may involve work that draws on biology, engineering, and sociology.

Among other things, this means that the folks at the meeting had a wide range of experiences when it came to how to do good interdisciplinary work, and to what kinds of rewards and challenges such works could present.

Indeed, one of the features of the meeting that I found most interesting was the conscious effort of participants towards “out of the box” thinking — about research in general, about what graduate training should or could include, about career trajectories for trainees, about the role of scientists and engineers in the public sphere — and the awareness of the ways that “the box” still presents what feel like real constraints to what is prudent or possible.

There were moments when the awareness of “the box” came out in statements about how things have to be done in one’s field, or about what could never work in one’s field. So, people might be interested in open notebook science, or intrigued by a particular stated standard for the level of contribution one should make to be the author of a paper, or impressed by the potential advantages of blogospheric “journal club”, or eager to talk about preliminary results at meetings, or what have you, while still holding the (often wistful or grim) conviction that they themselves could not make use of any of these ideas, because the environment within their disciplines would smack them down for doing so.

So much for getting out of the silos.

I’m not unsympathetic to the caution that PIs feel — especially on their trainees’ behalf — when it comes to the current structure of academic science and their sense (informed by their own experiences) of what will be rewarded and what will be punished. However, the assumption that it will ever be thus suggests a significant gap between interdisciplinarity in principle and interdisciplinarity in action. If nothing else, it strikes me that noticing what scientists in other fields can do (because, hey, they’re out there doing it) might reasonably lead to a reexamination of the conditions holding practitioners in one’s own field back. Such an examination might itself lead to some consideration of whether it might make sense to try to change the prevailing conditions.

And sure, individually, taking on standing conditions in your field can seem mighty daunting. However, when you have a ballroom full of PIs bemoaning the current structure of the reward structure in academic science, isn’t this an opportunity to explore what combining forces might accomplish?

In the next post, I’ll tell you about my piece of the Digital Science panel and the reactions it received from PIs and trainees. In a later post (or two), I’ll share some other thoughts from the meeting, including a recap of a panel on scientific career paths that go beyond the halls of academe.

Stay tuned.