When Gregor Mendel began his investigations of plant genetics in the 1800s, he worked alone — a middle-aged European monk counting peas in the abbey garden. One hundred and fifty years later, modern plant genetics laboratories, like Chelsea Specht’s below, look a lot more diverse and employ the latest DNA sequencing techniques. When J.J. Thomson discovered a new particle of matter — the electron — at the turn of the century, his lab equipment mainly consisted of vacuum tubes, magnets, and some simple wiring. One hundred years later, scientists searching for new particles like the Higgs boson use a supercollider — a 17-mile-long machine that costs several billion dollars and will produce data to be analyzed by the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Science has come a long way in the last 150 years! We now have more powerful data analysis techniques, more sophisticated equipment for making observations and running experiments, and a much greater breadth and depth of scientific knowledge. And as the attitudes of the broader society have progressed, science has benefited from the expanding diversity of perspectives offered by its participants. But what about the process of science itself? Has this fundamental aspect of the scientific enterprise changed over time?
Science will always look for explanations for what goes on in the natural world and test those explanations against evidence from the natural world — but exactly how this gets done may evolve. The scientific enterprise is not static. Science is deeply interwoven with society, and as it has changed, so too has science. Here are just a few examples of how modern scientific practices have been transformed by increasing knowledge, changing societal concerns, and advances in communication and technology.
Publication and peer review
Take a sidetrip
To learn more about evaluating scientific messages check out our section on A Scientific Approach to Life: A Science Toolkit.
The rise of the Internet has enabled scientific results to be publicized more rapidly than ever before possible. Journal articles are often made available online even before they are printed. This swift distribution of information can speed the pace of science since the latest studies can be scrutinized, replicated, and/or built upon with very little lag time. And as more and more journals provide records of reader comments on e-published articles, the process of peer review is being extended: many more scientists can provide feedback on a particular article and they may do it long after the article’s original publication. But the information flow doesn’t stop there. Journalists can also quickly access the latest scientific findings and begin to publicize them to the broader population. Scientific information on a wide variety of topics is now available to anyone with an Internet connection — which makes staying informed convenient, but also carries responsibilities. Consumers of this information must remember that, in science, the first report of a finding is never the last word. Many years and multiple rounds of testing may be required before science can be confident about a particular conclusion. With so much information, from so many different sources, it is now more important than ever to be a critical consumer of media messages about science.
Some journals have taken the free distribution of information to a new level by making original scientific articles open access — available to anyone with a way to get online. See for yourself by visiting:
- The Public Library of Science, where all articles are free
- The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where articles more than six months old are available for free
- The Directory of Open Access Journals, where you can find free journals on many different topics
In fact, scientists (especially young scientists) are beginning to change the way they communicate, more freely sharing information and sometimes making it available online before it is published. Read about this new trend in an article from the Boston Globe.
New media are also playing an increasingly important role in modern science. Check out a new movement in scientific publishing: video!
- The Journal of Visualized Experiments publishes biological research in a video format and is especially useful for learning new lab techniques.
You can even listen in on scientists’ coffee break discussions of recent papers, problems, and ideas by checking out online forums like:
- Cosmocoffee on cosmology and high-energy physics
- BioForum on biology lab techniques
Technological advances have also added an additional step to the review that many scientific articles undergo: image analysis. In 2004, Woo Suk Hwang announced to the scientific community and the rest of the world that he had reached a milestone of biology — cloning a human embryonic stem cell. Over the next two years, partly through the close scrutiny of images in his published work that appeared to be duplicated and manipulated, this so-called breakthrough was revealed to be a fraud. As cases like Huang’s have come to light, many journals have begun to more carefully scrutinize the images in scientific papers, often using computer programs to digitally analyze pictures and hunt for manipulation.
Specialization and collaboration
As our scientific knowledge has advanced and the questions we seek to answer have become more complex, science has become more specialized. While Charles Darwin’s research in the 1800s seems to have known no bounds — he studied everything from evolutionary theory, to geology, to human emotions, to soil ecology, to tropical corals, to barnacles and botany — a modern scientist is much more likely to focus on a narrower topic: salamander development, for example, or ancient climate changes in aquatic ecosystems. It’s not that modern scientists’ interests range less widely, but that our knowledge has expanded to such a degree that developing the expertise (and resources) necessary to conduct research at the cutting edge of a field can represent a huge investment of time and effort. Because of this, modern scientists tend to be more specialized than their predecessors.
This specialization (along with the complexity of the questions modern science investigates) has necessitated more cross-disciplinary collaboration than in the past. For example, a recent project investigating desertification in Southern Europe involved collaboration between sociologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, agronomists, biologists, and mathematical modelers.1 In addition, scientists today are now more likely to work in large teams — regardless of disciplinary specialization. In 1960, the average number of authors on science and engineering articles was around 1.9. As of 2000, that number had reached 3.5 and appeared to be on the rise.2 The most extreme examples of modern scientific teamwork are truly astounding. The paper reporting the initial sequence of the human genome had more than a thousand authors,3 and a similar number of physicists are involved with the Large Hadron Collider, a recent project in particle physics. Happily, advances in communications, especially the Internet, have smoothed the water for this transition to team science. Ideas, plans, and data can now be easily shared regardless of distance or political and institutional boundaries. In fact, many of the largest projects make their raw data publically available via the Internet for anyone to scrutinize or use in an investigation.
Take a sidetrip
See the data for yourself. Visit the Human Genome Project website for a tutorial on accessing free genetic data online.
In the 1830s, while travelling on the Beagle, Charles Darwin amassed for scientific study a vast collection of animal and plant specimens from around the world. In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur tested a vaccine by exposing groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated sheep to anthrax bacteria. In the 1890s, Marie and Pierre Curie’s studies of radiation were carried out without any environmental or safety precautions — and, in fact, their research notes from those years are still so radioactive that scholars wishing to study them must sign a risk waiver! Today, each of these studies would be subject to significant regulation from government agencies and scientific bodies — but historically, relatively few guidelines and rules have pertained to the ethics, safety, and environmental impact of scientific research. As society and the scientific community have become increasingly concerned about these ramifications, scientific and governmental organizations have set up guidelines to minimize potentially negative impacts and ensure that research is carried out ethically.
Take a sidetrip
Learn more about the many ways in which modern science is regulated. Visit Great Expectations in our unit on the Social Side of Science.
The process of science clearly evolves along with advances in knowledge and technology and with societal concerns. The Internet has opened up new ways for scientists to share information and work on projects together. Our expanding knowledge base has influenced the degree to which scientists specialize in sub-disciplines and, correspondingly, how much they collaborate. And, of course, as both the scientific community and the broader society in which it is embedded have become increasingly concerned about safety, environmental protection, and the treatment of animal and human study participants, new limits have been placed on how research is carried out. These shifts don’t suggest any fundamental changes in how science works — it’s still about finding explanations for phenomena in the natural world that hold up against multiple lines of evidence and the scrutiny of the scientific community — they do highlight the flexibility of the process of science to accommodate new concerns and build upon new opportunities.
- Science was once dominated by men and most recently by men living in Western nations. However, this situation is changing along with science itself. To learn more, visit Science around the world.
- Advanced: Visit the Visionlearning website to learn about how scientific institutions have changed over time and evolved into their current forms.
1Jeffrey, P. 2003. Smoothing the waters: Observations on the process of cross-disciplanary research collaboration. Social Studies of Science 33:539-562.
2Wuchty, S., B.F. Jones, and B. Uzzi. 2007. The increasing dominance of teams in production of knowledge. Science 316(5827):1036-1039.
3International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. 2001. Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome. Nature 409:860-921.