Corner Cases and the Big Big Tent of Science

Mar 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

During grad school I spent a year or so being supported by a very broadly defined interdisciplinary grant. At fist I hated it. It meant attending a weekly meeting with everyone at university associated with the program. A group of people I never would have voluntarily chosen to associate with professionally. They were nice people but. This is science?! This is research? What are these people doing?! ..these were my common complains.  It took me a while to get to know these disparate fields. Once I did I saw how much their constraints (and questions) were totally different than mine and it started to make more sense. I just had no idea initially. What they were doing had seemed ridiculous to me because of my underlying assumptions t about research priorities, questions worth investigating, and constraints in answering those questions.

This takes me to the PLOS open data announcement. Let's get this out of the way: not a bad idea. But a tough roll out. I appreciate that PLOS is in a difficult position here. PLos ONE covers all of science. That's a big big tent.

I mean really big. Easily underestimated, when was the last time you seriously talked to someone who works in a research area vastly different than what you do, easy to underestimate.

Here's the list from PLOS One: Biology & Life Science, Computer & Information Sciences, Earth Sciences, Ecology & Environmental Sciences, Engineering & Technology, Medicine & Health Sciences, Physical Sciences, Science Policy, Social Sciences.

That is a massive diversity of approaches to Science. I don't even know what I could confidently generalize about all of these areas. Social Science itself includes many disciplines. This is not simply 5 different ways to do biology. The data that PLOS is requesting varies greatly in, size, type, difficulty of collection, uniqueness, etc. etc.

This difficulty with figuring out the in and outs and whathaveyous of the big tent is relevant for any big how to improve science proposal. These proposals frequently suffer from a bit of discipline (or institution type) myopia. Some the differences across disciplines are merely historical accidents. Others may reflect real differences in constraints, goals, current professional realities, etc. That these differences exist, are important to be cognizant of, and cannot be understated.

(I am a little amused at both large video data and human data being mentioned as unusual corner cases. There are three or four labs on my hallway that use both of those.)

3 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't understand how people who engage in the online science world can miss this. Most of us do not associate exclusively online with people in closely related disciplines. This is the fun of it, in my view. And it is really education. Very hard to ignore the diversity of science, "biology" or even something as focused as neuroscience.

  • Zuska says:

    Your grad school experience sounds like an intellectual feast, yum. I was lucky to be part of an interdisciplinary (I was the only engineer, many social sciences & humanities folks) reading group and we had the same eye-opening & learning curve w/each other. STEM education narrows the view so severely - for a purpose, but at a huge cost.

    • Bashir says:

      Sounds similar. It took me a while to appreciate it to be honest. I only did it because I needed financial support and at the time resented that it kept me from being as super focused as I wanted to. Now I can see how that experience started to help me change my outlook and widen the scope of thinking about my research.

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