Monday, November 28, 2011

Help Wanted! But where to begin?

In the latest issue of Science Bruce Alberts (the magazine's current editor-in-chief and a previous president of the National Academy of Science) sounds a clarion call for science adaptors. Alberts says, "[m]any different parts of society urgently need such scientifically trained people to connect them to the rich resources of the scientific community."

While Alberts tries to convey a sense of urgency, I must take issue with his forewarning of an impending "crisis" in the biomedical sciences. While he claims that, "in this very exciting time to be a biological scientist, there is an ominous sense of a major crisis brewing;" I would claim that it is "brewing" only for those granted the luxury of denial. As biomedical science marches forward, the concept of diminishing returns is all too real and the indicators of a crisis are numerous and personal for a growing cohort of young biomedical scientists.

Not that I don't believe that opportunities exist--it's just that I think we need to be more innovative in how thy are identified. We must think more about where, how and why change needs to happen. Academia is good at churning out pristinely educated and supremely skilled research PhDs. And yes, programs like the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships have better enabled them to spread their mojo outside of the hallowed halls and to make the world better aware of the "rich resources of the scientific community." Further expanding and adapting this model is valid, but perhaps limiting.

It would be fabulous to devise ways to actively and conscientiously bring change to academia and the disciplines it fosters. How can STEM PhDs and academic postdocs more effectively consider their science in contexts that are not solely lab-based nor purely "scientific"? Is it relevant to ask these questions in a significant way within academia?

So just as Alberts embraces prestigious fellowships for STEM PhDs wishing to shape K-12 education, I would support one for PhDs and postdocs who wish to explore the nuances of their current high-level research in non-scientific, but still scholarly, contexts.

Some projects, like infectious disease research, naturally lend themselves to international and industry collaborations and considerations. Can we somehow probe these and other boundaries for topics that haven't explored the possibilities? This exploration can possibly include the social sciences, economics, history, public policy, education, media etc. as the scientist simultaneously conducts their laboratory experiments. Could this foster the adaptation we want and need?

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