Evolution of a scientific discipline…


Research bloggingTHE recent issue of Trends in Biochemical Sciences contained an interesting perspective piece from Alexander Shneider, PhD and CEO of CureLab in Massachusetts. He describes a revision, or alternative focus, of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) theory of scientific (r)evolution. In this Shneider identifies four-stages of evolution through which a scientific disciple must pass to maturity:

Stage 1. The introduction of new objects / phenomena, with an accompanying language to adequately describe such phenomena.

Stage 2. Development of a ‘tool box’ of methods / techniques to probe the objects / phenomena; with advancements in methodologies helping to identify and understand the degree to which other phenomena fall into the realm of this new science.

Stage 3. The stage at which most of the specific knowledge is generated, with the majority of research publications being published, often focussing on the application of new research methods to objects / phenomena. Scientists may re-describe their subject matter using refinements from stage 2, in the same way that with the advent of molecular biology, biologists might re-describe old subject matter from this new context; thus creating new insights, new answers and new questions.

Stage 4. A seeming steady-state for a discipline, where the knowledge gained from earlier stages is is maintained and passed on, often with practical application; often with new means generated to present the information. Whilst ground breaking new discoveries are not necessarily made, this does not preclude crucial revisions to the role of this discipline within scientific environment.

Such information is useful for several reasons. Scientists invariably have talent, but does this talent best suite the stage in which they find themselves working? It may be worth bearing in mind that one scientist with certain attributes, such as a sound knowledge of philosophy or art, may be better suited to a scientific discipline at stage 1, whereas a scientist who is fastidiously neat, detail orientated and tenacious may be better suited for a scientific discipline at stage 3, where precision and no mistakes are essential. Shneider goes on in greater details about the various qualities that may be found in scientists working within each stage, citing important historical scientists, and crucially, the likely reasons for conflicts that arise between scientific disciplines.

It does raise an interesting question, to my mind, of why some scientists are more productive and some scientists less so; one might suspect that with a general interest and aptitude for science, any biological scientist may function within any biological discipline to which they feel drawn; but a scientist’s style of working, and patterns of thinking, may be suited to a specific discipline depending upon the evolutionary stage of that discipline; they may therefore have the right set of talents needed to practice science at such a stage. If an early-career scientist could identify the stage at which they are most effective, it might present them with better career prospects when hunting for that next postdoc, or conversely, help principle investigators find suitable new team members for their projects.

In governmental science policy and funding issues, the stage of respective disciplines may have great significance; he states that ‘No public policy aimed at stimulating the scientific process can be equally beneficial for all four stages.’ suggesting that painting all scientists with the same brush may be stimulating for one and detrimental for another. One might imagine that there is an emphasis on stage 3 and 4 disciplines, given that stage 3 would typically result in the greater number of publications and stage 4 in the greater commercial application of the science, however, as I have mentioned before when discussing fundamental research, these issues should not preclude the value of disciplines at stages 1 and 2. Shneider says, ‘a culture must be in place to assure those who generate ideas are not any more or less appreciated than those who can incorporate them into the overall scientific scheme.’

By Shneider’s definitions, I for one spent many years working in a stage 3 dicipline, but have recently moved into one that might be considered on the threshold of stage 2 and 3; we’re developing a tool kit of techniques that can be used to probe a new discipline, a basic infrastructure, laying down the foundation for what I would consider to be the ‘more exciting’ work to come. I have to admit that I am more suited to the middling stage 3 research than any other.

Whatever the merits of Shneider’s thesis, and it contains little in the way of rigorous evidence and rather more anecdotal (though he admits that in applying the four-stage process this paper describes to itself, it might be considered first-stage research), it does have a vein of common sense, and may merit further investigation.

Shneider, A. (2009). Four stages of a scientific discipline; four types of scientist Trends in Biochemical Sciences, 34 (5), 217-223 DOI: 10.1016/j.tibs.2009.02.002


One thought on “Evolution of a scientific discipline…

  1. Interesting post! I’m never totally convinced by trying to split changing processes into distinct stages, but from what I know of science so far, this does seem to discribe it quite well. Unfortunately, as i think you mentioned, ‘thinking up clever ideas’ isn’t really an academic post you can apply for, starting out at the PhD level, there seems to be no choice other than to go into stage 3 or 4 research (possibly managing stage 2 if you choose the right supervisor).

    That may be all for the best. A few years actually doing science probably gives you more of a solid basis to start thinking about ideas for new ways of viewing things.

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