Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

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Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

Why Alfred Nobel would never have made it past the post

Alfred Nobel was the richest man alive when he passed away. He had invented dynamite, and held in total 350 patents. Not just skilled in science, he was fluent in numerous languages, and wrote poetry in his non-native English. In his famous will, he instituted the Nobel prizes – the most famous and prestigious prizes in the world.

Alfred Nobel, who had connections and knowledge but no formal qualifications

Nobel Laureates aplenty convene this week at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, along with bright young researchers who have been chosen for their excellence in the fields of physiology and medicine. But would the extraordinarily gifted polymath Alfred Nobel himself have ever made it to Lindau? Probably not; Nobel had no formal qualifications. His only chance would have been a glowing recommendation from someone with more mainstream credentials, we heard at the opening ceremony yesterday.

This is a striking example of how authority and kudos is conveyed in the scientific community – usually through being at the right institution or getting funding from the right body. So young scientists who for whatever reason have less awareness of the political machinations of science and academia, or have fewer opportunities, but are nevertheless gifted in their research – have iteratively fewer chances. The consequence, arguably, is to create a scientific elite from those that begin on the right footing, have the right affiliations and want to stay inside institutions.

Increasingly, though, the workforce is moving away from traditional working patterns and towards freelance investigation and non-affiliated working. There are a number of important questions to be raised when looking at these phenomena – and some of them are being implicitly addressed in the rhetoric at this year’s Lindau meeting.

One relates to authority. Nobel Laureate Rolf Schekman is a vocal proponent of Open Access publishing, and argues that prestigious journals are skewing science for the worse. Having established eLife – a foundation funded platform that is free to read and free to submit to, Schekman believes we need to move back towards a meritocracy in science, where researchers are judged on the quality of their work rather than the lottery over where they publish. To this end, Schekman suggests throwing out the current system of gauging scientists by the number of publications in high impact journals, and instead have a system of one-page impact statements for each researcher, something that to me sounds very like the artist’s statement. In arguing this, Schekman is in fact arguing against the automatic conveyance of authority from a journal to a researcher – something that has always struck me a little like the rhetoric of an appeal to authority – and arguing for those wishing to assess a potential candidate to go deeper into their work.

SchekmanRolf Schekman at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

There is a resonance here with the idea of establishing authority for new techniques. I spoke to Arieh Warshel earlier today about the reception by the experimental community of computational techniques, such as his QM/MM methods for studying complex biochemical systems, for which he won the 2013 Nobel in Chemistry with Martin Karplus and Michael Levitt. A large part of gaining acceptance is about gaining authority, according to Warshel – an argument that is borne out by the main philosophers studying the tricky field of the validation of computational techniques. Warshel argues that in 50 years, most science will be done using computer models as a means to decipher experimental findings.

Schekman’s attitude to journals’ Impact Factors could equally be applied to the way we confer authority from institutions onto people. There is of course the potential for an institution’s good reputation to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy by bringing together many bright people in one place. Mark Pagel recently wrote on the innovative effect of living in cities, and some research and educational institutions can have similar effects on those within their walls. What is important about now is that these network benefits are not limited to universities and research institutions. They exist not only in the digital space but also in hackerspaces, coworking spaces, meetup groups, and in citizen science communities. However, these communities – which have a rich and varied population – do not fit within academic institutional siloes.

With increasing Open Access publishing, these people and communities now have access to current scientific research to inspire and inform their own endeavours. However, they are missing a couple of things: the funding and resources afforded by institutions, and the exchange with the broad swathe of the academic community that still doesn’t engage with them.

As I wrote recently, there are arguments about how innovative citizen science and hacker culture can be under present circumstances. But how many Alfred Nobels are out there, with sufficient knowledge, intelligence and motivation to add to our collective pool of scientific learning, but lacking a route into a dialogue with people inside institutions? Perhaps we need more unconventional routes into science – to apply this same meritocracy outside of the formal scientific community, just as Schekman argues for within it.