Molecular biology research has come to rely more and more on commercially available assays known as ‘kits’. It has been suggested to me that this phenomenon is ‘dumbing down’ research, resulting in sloppy science and undermining the significance of published results. However, I believe that this is a necessary and important step to make science a more accessible career in our modern high-technology economy.
In the period of scientific renaissance in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the Age of Enlightenment, researchers were generalists. Mostly bored aristocrats, they dabbled in whatever bits and pieces of natural history, chemistry or physics took their fancy. Usually their focus lasted a few weeks, or if the problem was particularly challenging, a few months. Then they would write up their results as a paper, present it to whichever Royal Society or Académie seemed appropriate, and move on to the next shiny bit of science they laid their eyes on.
The last 100-150 years, however, saw a shift towards increased research specialisiation. This is to be expected; to put it simply, all the ‘easy’ discoveries had been made. It became necessary to spend more time focussing on your particular expertise to achieve something of scientific value. The age of the casual researcher was over – dabbling in various scientific fields no longer yielded results. This change was reinforced by the rise of the modern university in the 19th century, where productive thinking was encouraged, as well as the opening of universities to the general populace, at the beginning of the 20th.
These factors led to a rapid and widespread move towards a system of highly specialised research, particularly in the so-called ‘hard sciences’. This has been the status quo for the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st, and has proved to be extremely effective in fields such as physics and molecular biology, where experiments rely heavily on an understanding of the underlying theory.
Molecular biology has, in the last 20 years, become a much more stable field – discoveries and innovations are still coming at a rapid rate, but the fundamental tenets are no longer debated. We have a firm grasp of the basic rules and systems, and we are now starting to exploit that understanding. In other words, it is moving from a research science to a technological science, as evidenced by the rise of biotechnology as a discrete discipline. This is a common sign of a maturing scientific field – it occurred with mechanisation in the 17th and 18th century, and electronics between World War I and World War II. There are two telling signs of this change in molecular biology: rapid expansion of commercial applications for molecular biology research, and the emergence of assay kits.
The impact and implications of ‘kit science’ in the long run are complex, and far from clear. These kits are simplifying and speeding up common experimental protocols. While this does mean that experiments are becoming quicker and easier, the kits need little theoretical knowledge to be used successfully. This has resulted in a perceived dumbing-down in researchers – if a kit will work whether or not you understand the theory, that underlying knowledge automatically becomes less important to your outcome. And mostly, this is considered a bad thing.
However, there is another aspect to this, and it lies in the change from research science to technological science. It is beyond debate that science and innovation will play a crucial role in the long-term survival of our species. The transition to a knowledge economy is occurring globally at a rapid rate, often in response to increasing demands on global resources. To feed and medicate a rapidly growing population, to keep the strain on our planet within acceptable limits, and to continue the rapacious pace of expansion that is the modern norm; all of these demands will require a major contribution from biotechnology. And this in turn means that the number of scientists and technologists will need to be far higher than they are now. Research science, especially molecular biology, as a career, is currently the realm of nerds and geniuses. If we are to meet this growing demand for molecular solutions, a career in research needs to be far more accessible to the general public.
As such, I would argue that this so-called dumbing-down is, in fact, an essential step towards a future where biotechnology can play a greater role in solving the many challenges we face as a species. And far from being lamented, it should be managed and encouraged as a step towards a better world.