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Science in 2006

A former IBM chief scientist looks ahead from 1986 into the twenty-first century

Lewis Branscomb

Reorganization for Reintegration: Disciplines as the Protectors of Standards

The universities had realized in the late 1980s that they had to reorganize to take advantage of the reintegration of science, and it was a painful period. Many were quick to deplore the chauvinism of academic disciplines as a barrier to progress; department heads had lost most of their clout to the new research institutes on campus. Murray Gell-Mann's Santa Fe Institute (now named Pickens Institute for Science, after T. Boone Pickens's generous gift of $150 million) had been founded as a postgraduate institution with no departments at all. The Carnegie Institution of Washington, which had celebrated the centenary of its congressional charter in 2003, flourished in the new pan-disciplinary environment, having adopted this approach when it was founded over 100 years ago.

Peer Review for Pan-Disciplinary Science

But trouble began when bitter controversies arose over peer review of the new cross-disciplinary research programs. It was almost impossible to find reviewers with the required breadth of view. Having one reviewer in each of the fields involved was worst of all; no such proposals were rated acceptable. Even when qualified panels could be found, nobody could figure out which discipline's budget should be charged for the work. This situation was largely responsible for the fact that two dozen of the top scientists in the country swore off government grants and moved to Santa Fe with Murray Gell-Mann.

The reintegration of science exacted its price in glib talkers whose dabbling in a variety of fields equipped them for excellent high-table conversation, but whose work was often sadly lacking in rigor. Many scientists became deeply concerned about how standards could be maintained. Finally, a suggestion made back in 1985 by Nobelist Herb Simon was resurrected and put into effect. The rule was that no one was allowed to publish pan-disciplinary pronouncements until they had published at least one solid paper in each of the disciplines drawn upon. As a result the word "discipline" took on new meaning.

At that point, someone recognized that the arts and humanities had suffered from this problem for decades. In 2005, one wag suggested that academic musicians, painters, and poets could create whatever they liked to call art without restraint, provided they first showed that they could compose a tune you could whistle, draw a picture you could recognize, or write a poem that rhymed. Artists and writers bridled at this patently anti-intellectual suggestion, and noted that if science was engaging nature in its full complexity and at high levels of abstraction, so should art.

Specialization Versus Reintegration

Thus the traditional departments in the universities were weakened, but they did not disappear. Universities were still the preferred institutional setting for federally funded research. Their faculties had to qualify to teach organized courses in specific disciplines. The departments offered the only satisfactory arrangement for setting standards for the awarding of degrees in each discipline. They were-and still are-the defenders of rigor in the field. They set the tests for compliance with the new "Simon standard."

So the tension between specialization and integration in science continued and is still with us. As a matter of fact, it was noticed that although Pickens Institute had no departments, there were committees to award Ph.D.s in each discipline, so that the students could qualify for faculty positions in other universities. Pickens Institute by 2006 looked a lot like Rockefeller University in adobe architecture.

Peer Review: Awards for Innovative Science

Peer review of pan-disciplinary research only exacerbated problems that had long existed. Scientists kept their best ideas out of grant proposals, which were instead written around work already largely completed and moving toward publication. When the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health could no longer get competent people to referee these meaningless proposals or to sit on study sections, the scheme was changed.

The new funding system for science had two parts, one for mature scientists and one for young investigators. Neither group was required to describe in detail the work they planned to do in the future. The mature scientist submitted papers and other evidence of completed work of the last three years. This material was evaluated by peer review and given a rating, which was then used to determine the probability of continued funding. The scientist's institution received an additional sum, amounting to 25% of the grant, for the support of young scientists with less than three years of postdoctoral experience. Young investigators seeking startup grants could also demonstrate their qualifications for research through personal testimonials from mature scientists.

In this way, the research support system evolved away from its procurement tradition of the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first century became an investment in people.

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