I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.
Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.
I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.
My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.
Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.
Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.
During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.
We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project.
This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?
In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?
In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.
Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?
It is not the parrot fish.
Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:
Introduction to Science
By the end of this year you will be able to:
Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
Describe a manipulative study
Describe an observation study
Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.
You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2). You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.
Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.
Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.
I am full of a chesty cold and have spent the weekend falling from sick bed to sick bed around the flat, with Athena following dutifully in my wake to cuddle and occasionally lick me back to full health. So I’ve been reading a lot of internet articles.
There’s a fascinating blog on Jezebel about how a writer felt after the death of his cat Kellog. A paper I wrote looking at how people remember dead pets online will soon be available in Anthrozoos. The nature of the internet means that that paper is already slightly outdated, with this kind of response now more often captured in social media rather than online pet obituaries as it was only a few years ago.
Add it to the list of things to investigate one day . . .
The UK looks like it will be the first country to allow babies with the genetic material of three parents, with our MPs voting for the bill on Tuesday.
Now in the UK we also have a House of Lords, who also must approve the bill at a later date, and there’s no guarantee they will, but given the large majority of parliament members (382 to 182) it’s likely they will. It also has to be approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a UK governmental organisation.
On Tuesday morning I was listening to Morning Call on Radio Scotland. It’s a fairly simple show, where people call in to give their opinions on any given subject. That, combined with the online reaction today, has had me and my colleagues thumping our foreheads against the desks repeatedly.
Yes, this is a classic case of a catchy headline. The mitochondria, which you probably remember from high school biology, is essentially the battery of a cell. Long, long ago in our evolutionary past, back when we were simple collections of cells, mitochondria were simple single cell organisms capable of doing things our little cells weren’t. Namely powering things. So they were captured and made a part of larger cellular organism that was us. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s because of this that mitochondria have slightly interesting and unique DNA, a separate part of our genome that codes for our mitochondria. Some organisms have managed to get rid of all of the mitochondrial DNA, and others have got weird mutations in there, we’ll come back to that later.
The important thing to note is that ‘three parent baby’ simply takes the mitochondrial DNA from one genome, and the rest of the DNA in the traditional method (for a given definition of ‘traditional’, in a test tube, under the stars, wearing leather, wearing lace . . . ) comes from the two parents.
A Gateway To Eugenics
One of the strangest comments I’ve heard in relation to this news is that it means we’re a step closer to eugenics. This is, in some ways, deeply insulting to the families of those who are suffering from mitochondrial diseases. To want to be free of disease does not equate to eugenics.
In humans, mitochondria are inherited directly from the mother. You’ve heard of Mitochondrial Eve? The reason we have her is because our mitochondrial DNA doesn’t get recombined and altered in the same way as the rest of our genome. Like the Y chromosome, it is an excellent way of doing forensic genetics. Both of them remain greatly unchanged throughout our evolutionary history, and we can track back to a conceptual Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam. However, I’ll point out that these aren’t real people. They’re simply the earliest ancestor we’re all related to – which changes as our population changes over time.
But it’s this phenomenon, the conservation of this DNA, that allows us to swap them out in this fashion. The DNA inside the mitochondria is so useless to the rest of the body they can be exchanged very easily. So you see, we’re still many, many years and innovations away from selecting the genes we want and engineering our babies. This procedure is feasible, and safe, because mitochondrial DNA is so protected, and usually inconsequential in a genome.
Why Do We Need It?
Because mitochondrial diseases are horrific things. The mitochondrial DNA is special, yes, separate from the rest of the DNA, yes. But it also mutates, as all DNA does, and it doesn’t have much of a way of repairing itself or realising that its damaging its body. Symptoms include Multiple Sclerosis style diseases, loss of eyesight, loss of hearing, dementia, neurological problems, an inability to exercise, diabetes, poor growth, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders . . . and each one of these things are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself.
We can eradicate this disease, easily, while maintaining a person’s right to reproduce. If you fear that because you’ve seen one too many B movies about Frankenstein . . . you just show me how much work I have to do.
Finally I have to say something about the “Science has gone too far” style comments, and “humans have evolved to their current state, we shouldn’t meddle”. In so many cases, comics can communicate more about science than any of my blogs. To those people I say . . .