Science In Society in the 21st Century: Interdisciplinarity and Beyond

Paul Grobstein
Center for Science in Society
Bryn Mawr College

A talk at
a CET sponsored workshop at Juniata College in Huntington, Pennsylvania
Implications of the NIH Roadmap for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education:
A Research Scientist Springboard Program

9-10 August 2004

Abstract. As we begin the 21st century, the nature of scientific research is continuing to evolve, requiring concomitant changes in the education of those who will go on to careers as professional scientists. Research increasingly depends on effective collaborations among professionals with differing disciplinary perspectives, and so on having a cadre of professionals who appreciate the value of working across disciplinary borders and have the communication and synthesis skills needed to do so. While considering new educational initiatives in this context, it is worth thinking as well about some broader problems and opportunities, having to do with the nature of science itself and the role it can and should play in human culture. The need for improved communication and synthesis extends beyond the community of professional scientists. Initiatives for change in the education of professional scientists could readily be broadened in ways that would help to better engage students, irrespective of future career choices, with a strengthened scientific enterprise, one better able to fulfill for all humans the mission of being a key component of inquiry into the nature of humanity and its relation to the universe. To encourage movement in this direction, some general principles will be outlined, and some sample initiatives described.


Consensus (?) within the "science community"

SOME DETAILS, in a particular context

"a recursive and unending process"

"Science" is a useful, always changing story

  • "Science" is not, cannot be, does not need to pretend to be, should not pretend to be "Truth"
  • It is not only the "story" but the methods of developing the story that are, should be continually subject to skepticism
  • The success (and survival) of "science", like all human institutions, depends in the long run on its usefulness in human culture at large.
  • What is unique about science is not its engagement with the solution to immediate human problems but rather its commitment to "a recursive and unending process" of skeptical inquiry".
  • "Science" has has generated/will continue to generate by-products relevant to immediate human problems (both useful and problematic). Its long term significance (and survival) relates to its distinctive commitment.

    "is of interest and is accessible to everyone,
    and is an essential tool in the repertoire of anyone who
    is themself trying to make sense of who they are
    and how they relate to the world around them

    "is a social process,
    one in which the observations and tentative summaries are shared among individuals,
    so that each can benefit from the ongoing inquiries of others


    This meeting

    "It is now recognized that new organizational models for team science that place a greater value on the ability to work across traditional disciplines, involve multiple institutions and create effective communication among team members will be required"

    "to discuss and begin to address the implications of the NIH Roadmap on the design and implementation of the undergraduate curriculum as it relates to students with career aspirations in biomedical research"

    "this particular challenge is one for which the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) model of 'bringing together the minds, tools, data and methods of inquiry for the advancement of learning and knowledge' among smaller liberal arts colleges is particularly well suited to address"

    Is all consistent with, propitious for the still more ambitious task of reconceiving "science" as "everybody getting it less wrong together". So, as we work on the specific task at hand (cooperation in "the design and implementation of the undergraduate curriculum as it relates to students with career aspirations in biomedical research") let's keep in mind the broader task as well ...

    Some more examples:

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