Mike the Mad Biologist is, well, mad. In writing about Obama’s science team, I commented that:

scientists often distinguish [technical challenges] from the challenges in testing our broad conceptual understanding of the laws of nature. While “test tube jockeys” often produce important results, there tends to be a certain skepticism of their work. Similarly, medical research is so focused on the practical application that scientists in other fields are dubious about regarding medical researchers as being engaged in the same sort of enterprise as a theoretical physicist or a landscape ecologist.

Mike then points out that “science requires people who understand that to fundamentally change any field, you need to dramatically change the means and the scale by which data are collected and analyzed.” That “Anyone who is doing ‘applied science’ without thinking about his or her problem just as a ‘pure scientist’ would isn’t doing good applied science. And the gains we make in medical microbiology (boo! hiss!) will change how ‘pure’ microbial ecologists will use the same methods and analytical tools to assess ‘real’ microbial communities.” That “the intersection between evolution and medical progress is one of the strongest arguments to the unconvinced about the utility of evolution.” And that “Lander will be a very good friend to ‘pure science.’” As well as many other good and correct points.

I tried, clearly unsuccessfully, to distinguish my own views from what I perceive as the general attitude of the scientific community by beginning those offending sentences with weasel words like “scientists often?.” I could have and should have been clearer that I don’t regard Lander’s genomics work or Varmus’s medical research as a lesser sort of science. I was trying to explain why, “Lubchenco’s announcement has the sciencebloggers very excited” in ways that the other announcements didn’t seem to. And a part of it is that the others are so good and so clearly straddle the science/policy divide as to be within our range of expectations. And another part is that we are unused to pure scientists being put in such positions of power. I was then trying to explain what I’ve observed about the sociology of science, and the ways that scientists in general create hierarchies and in-groups. I didn’t mean to endorse those attitudes, which I find harmful for many of the same reasons Mike details.

To depart briefly from the internecine rivalries of scientific fields, consider the squabbling over how many of Obama’s cabinet members are from the South, and the various bits of ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual identity nose-counting being done on cabinet-members. No Jews named as Secretaries, but Rahm, as Chief of Staff, will be chairing most cabinet meetings, so that’s OK. Even the cabinet’s athletic skills have gotten scrutiny. This is all to say that we keep track of largely meaningless data about which arbitrary groups different cabinet members share with us to make ourselves feel like we’ll be represented in the cabinet.

So it was in that sense that I commented on which of the scientific tribes Obama’s science team members belonged to. I find that tribalism silly and counterproductive. But the general public is largely unaware that such tribalism even exists within science. Because the public doesn’t understand the bizarre territoriality of scientific disciplines, they are likely to give equal weight to the assessment of the American Institute for Biological Sciences and a doctor with no understanding of neuroscience nor of evolution.

So Mike is right, and I am appropriately chastened. I didn’t make it clear that I disapprove of the attitudes I was explaining, and I should have.

I will note that a criticism along those lines could be leveled legitimately. In pondering who I hoped the next science advisor would be, I scratched Francis Collins on the grounds that “Federal science shouldn’t be so focused on giant projects (like Collins’s Human Genome Project), nor am I entirely happy with the way that molecular biology and genomics seem to be squeezing out other parts of the biological sciences,” and “I worry about diverting attention from the breadth of biology to an increasingly narrow focus on medical research, though, and am skeptical about having a doctor (such as Ommen or Varmus) in a science advisory role.”

PCAST will currently be chaired by a physicist, a genome sequencer, and doctor who researches oncogenes. Oddly, had Obama chosen either Lander or Varmus, but not both, I could have summarized it as “a biologist and a physicist,” but in picking two people from the biological sciences, we have to ask how their backgrounds complement one another. And in that sense there is cause for concern. Varmus and Lander and both focused at the molecular and genetic level, not at the organismal or ecological scale. Lubchenco will bring that to the administration, but not to cabinet meetings and not to PCAST.

And Mike’s own post points out the dangers in missing that approach:

Lubchenco’s seminal contributions-perhaps her most important contribution to her field-was her recognition that experimental laboratory rigor-methodological rigor, in particular-could and must be used ‘out there’, outside of the lab. The only way we could begin to get a handle on ecological processes was if we had the methodologies (that is, technologies) to then apply to theoretical questions. And it goes without saying (or should anyway) that new methods transform fields by destroying old theoretical frameworks and requiring new ones.

Some of the genomics work I do (with many others) illustrates this. As I’ve mentioned before, I work on the human microbiome project. Because of the technical rigor that we and other major sequencing centers have brought to 16S rRNA characterization of microbial communities (really for the first time in the field’s relatively short history), we are now generating large datasets that will change how we analyze and understand microbial communities. Many of the assumptions made by microbial community ecologists in dealing with these data are inadequate, and were only found to be so because of the technical rigor and scale of the resources brought to bear.

?To use the above example, we can’t even do quality control (i.e., are we doing a good job of sequencing?) without doing rigorous community ecology (which is how we stumbled across the realization that many of the methods are bunk).

My worry about Lander (and Varmus, to a lesser extent) is that his field seems supremely reductionist, and misses out on the importance of jumping between levels of biological organization. It’s been my general sense that molecular biologists and genomics researchers often have little sense of biological diversity, even to the extent of doing comparative analyses within sister taxa to their preferred model organism (though this is thankfully changing). There are people who’ve worked on Drosophila genomes for decades who are probably worse at identifying insects than I am, and who have little sense of how their fruit flies behave, or how they interact with one another and with their environment.

My bias (and I admit it is a bias, one that is largely irrational, and is likely to be wrong in any objective sense) is to think that biology is important because it integrates across levels of organization. That the molecular fanciness only matters because it contributes to the totality of the organism, and the organism contributes to its ecosystem. Understanding only the molecular level without any attention to broader patterns (development including evo-devo, ecology, biodiversity, etc.) is skewed in ways that actually harm someone’s understanding of the science.

I don’t know enough about Lander and Varmus to say how much they see beyond the molecular and genetic levels, and to what extent they see the relevance of biology beyond human health. I hope and suspect that they do see it more broadly, but I’ve known too many people in medical research and in genomics who do lose track of the breadth of biology. If they are going to represent the biological sciences to the President it’s important to know where they stand on such matters.

This is important, because one thing we badly need is more money for natural history museums and for the training of a new generation of systematists. The vast majority of the world’s species are undescribed, and the majority of the undescribed species live in the places experiencing the highest rates of extinction. We need young scientists in the field collecting specimens and figuring out how they fit into the tree of life, and those scientists and their specimens need homes, which means well-maintained natural history collections. And yet, museum staffs are being downsized, and too many museums have been closed up entirely. That is unsustainable. And it happens because “molecular biology and genomics seem to be squeezing out other parts of the biological sciences.”

Furthermore, we need ecologists and organismal biologists to be out in the field studying both the species we know and those yet to be discovered. We have names for less than 10% of the species in existence, and we have any sort of information on diet, breeding behavior, patterns of activity, and ecological interaction for less than 10% of that. Setting aside the fact that the undiscovered and unstudied majority of living things may contain compounds which would let us treat diseases, improve our foodstock, or develop new ways to produce fuels, they simply contain a wealth of information about our world, information that will be lost if we don’t put boots on the group in places like Madagascar, the Philippines, New Guinea, and the South American tropics (among many others, including the oceans).

Will President Obama hear about that from his science advisor? Will he hear it from PCAST? Or will it have to filter through from Lubchenco, who will have bigger fish to fry as she tries to ward off ocean acidification, dead zones, coral bleaching, offshore drilling, whale hunting, and the collapse of fisheries? To the extent that I’ve got interest-group base parochial concerns about Obama’s science team, that’s where it comes from.

That said, and having invested 1600 words on those worries, I continue to be absolutely thrilled by the team, and by the President-elect’s attention to science and to the concerns of scientists. We, as a community, will have the ear of a President who respects science and respects what it does. That matters a hell of a lot more than any quibbles I might be able to drum up about the focus of any member of his team of advisors.


  1. #1 Jenna
    December 24, 2008

    Fantastic entry! It is too true that biologists lose sight of the bigger picture, and I have long wondered and been concerned about this pattern. It seems that if one wants to study biology, it is because they have an interest in complicated systems, and an appreciation for the intricacies of life; however, getting bogged down in for example, a vacuole transport gene in yeast does not always contribute to our broader understanding of life if it is not placed in context. However, even evolutionary biologists and ecologists can suffer from this problem; personally, I know many evolutionary biologists who may study the behavior and ecological genetics of an organism, but really have no idea how it fits into or contributes to its environment, nor could they identify other similar organisms if their lives depended on it. We all have particular interests and talents, and my solution is that while not everyone who studies biology needs to devote time and research energy into the bigger picture, it seems like anyone who calls themselves a biologist of some sort should, in service to science and society, make an effort to school themselves in the broader applications of their work.

  2. #2 hip hip array
    December 25, 2008

    While you study the bigger picture, the bigger picture is bulldozed and incinerated.