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Science needs politicians, consumers, engineers...

By Anna Campbell

It's funny isn't it, when you have conversations with different people and read material from disparate sources and it all comes together in an "aha'' moment.

I had that experience last week when listening to Sir Peter Gluckman deliver a seminar titled "Conversations on Science and Society'' at the University of Otago.

He covered a plethora of topics in his address but what stood out for me was the changing definition of science and how science plays a role in solving bigger challenges, but never in isolation from other disciplines.

Bear with me as I interpret all this using thoughts from my own world. Society's definition of science, and even a scientist's definition of science, is often narrow and as a result, the way we are trained can be restrictive.

Scientists are generally trained to take a "reductionist approach'', first asking one question, answering it appropriately and then posing a more refined question.

To give you an example, many years ago I was employed in Australia to find tools for improving noodle colour of wheat. Yes, you read that right - imagine how you would feel if you bought yellow alkaline noodles and they turned out to be white!

My first task (as part of a large research group) was to combine processing and laboratory data to find mathematical patterns that allowed me to identify parts of chromosomes associated with noodle colour.

Then, once we had found these chromosome parts, we narrowed our search to find potential genes associated with the traits. Following this, we moved from DNA to RNA analysis to understand how the genes were expressed in different environments - see how it all works?

As a young scientist I remember feeling quite disgruntled at the narrow tunnel I found myself in and I simply hated working with RNA - far too fiddly! This was about the point I recognised in myself a need to be more "big picture'' in my work, which led to a series of decisions that have taken me happily to where I am now.

In contrast, the most successful, well-published scientists become world experts by remaining incredibly specialised in a very narrow zone of work. There is nothing inherently wrong with this model and many great discoveries have been made using the reductionist approach.

Yet, and this is the next piece of Sir Peter's argument, scientists are very good at finding problems but not necessarily finding solutions. This is because solutions to big challenging problems, such as climate change, are complex and require multi-disciplinary thinking and collaboration.

Scientists cannot tackle climate change alone: we need politicians, consumers, trade negotiators, farmers, engineers, business people.

So what does a different model of science look like? According to Sir Peter, it will require "hypothesis-driven thinking'', rather than a reductionist approach. Therefore, training may span many disciplines and will require our science students to traverse the world of politics or languages and vice versa.

I suspect, as a young student, this is a brave path to travel. Where is the guaranteed job at the end of a non-vocational degree? Who knows? Apparently, we don't know what the majority of our children will be doing for jobs in the next two decades, as those jobs don't yet exist!

I trained for eight years to be a scientist and I am ashamed to say that during those eight years, I did not take one non-science paper! It's lucky that knowledge is easy to come by now and I can read more widely and have slowly expanded my mind.

But, if I had my time again, oh the choices I would make... genetics, Maori, marine biology, Mandarin, economics, food science, English literature, politics, creative writing, marketing, psychology, international trade, oh and of course, agriculture!