Big Science 2/2
What am I raving at? In KNUST’s drive to be a research-intensive institution, its sure bet is to dive head first into biomedical “Big Data Science” and research. It’s been the tried and tested area in many prominent universities worldwide that offers more research funding per capital than any comparable area of research for the past two decades. More Nobel prizes in the sciences, for the past 5-10 years, have been awarded to the researchers at the interface of the sciences than to researchers in any of the comparable traditional research area. The prestige level of biomedical researchers is disproportionately high relative to those in other areas of research. The most visible biomedical researchers are celebrated as gods. Literally! But most importantly, the research effort saves lives. The motto of the “Molecular Targets Group” of my former university is “from the lab-bench to the bedside.” And that motto crystallizes the strong desire and the desperation of the seriously ill patients to try anything, including new and unproven medication, to get relieve from their afflictions.
KNUST’s instinctual survival reflexes as an international extra-mural funding-attracting university should be inextricably linked with biomedical research. And this proposition matters a whole lot to our drive towards financial self-sufficiency.
With increasing frequency, in both depth and breadth, the mathematical and quantitative sciences including engineering, statistics, computer science, physics, econometrics, and mathematics are being utilized in the biosciences to advance our understanding of biochemical mechanisms. Micro-array generated gigabytes of data require mathematicians trained as Bio-Informaticians. Cancer biology requires inputs from mathematicians to illuminate mechanistic conundrums that have stymied understanding of molecular mechanisms underlying the development of malignancies and underpinning its progression to disease of increasing severity. Computer scientists are needed to write “in-house” programs for computationally demanding tasks of data management in metagenomics. Statisticians are needed for the evaluation of the effect of population-wide health policies on health-related standard of living. Actuarial scientists can utilize novel quantitative approaches to monitor patients undergoing lifestyle intervention studies. Bioengineering inputs are needed in the fabrication of health equipment including artificial heart, catheter, and replacement body parts and in Biomedical 3D Printing. The list of connections between the mathematical scientists and biomedical research is staggering; but in all these cases training requires bilateral exposure to each core basic mathematical discipline and to topical biology courses in training activities that are both interdisciplinary and collaborative. With effective training, students can tackle complex biomedical challenges in careers in pharmaceutical companies and in government agencies that needs translational science to improve the clinical outcome of patients.
The onus is on us to develop courses that bridge the gaps within our traditional course pathway so that students can be exposed to interdisciplinary methods in biomedical research work that are the gateways to careers in the life sciences. Interested students will be trained holistically to contribute to the emerging Ghana’s Biotechnology industry that will be the primary engine of innovation in developing new drugs. Ultimately, our concerted efforts will offer a platform for the discovery of new career paths in biomedical science and in other professional areas within the life sciences.
For example, training of social scientists and engineers should include a formal exposure to biostatistics, bioethics, and professional and career development issues and even formal participation in a clinical experience (Clinical Internship and Rotation) where students are exposed first-hand to actual clinical problems requiring social science ingenuity or bioengineering input for their solution within various medical disciplines (e.g., prevalence pattern of breast cancer, fabrication of artificial heart and so on). Whatever curriculum that is developed must acknowledge this interdisciplinary formal training and offer appropriate degrees BSc, MPhil and PhD degrees in each discipline.
What about lecturers? As noted, the participating unit of biomedical “team science” is formed by a multidisciplinary group of researchers together with clinical faculty members. We have to take the initiative and contact colleagues on our research interest wavelength and get something started. Undoubtedly, KNUST has a lot of challenges to address before the large “Team Science” concept becomes fully operational. Such challenges encompass: scientific, conceptual, technological, educational and cultural. The good news is that these challenges can easily be surmounted if a “culture of collaboration” takes root and gently coaxes us to integrate our scientific/liberal arts disciplines at the interpersonal level. It is known that advances in bio-medicine and in its associated “Big Science” are inevitably hampered by traditional training paradigms like ours in which researchers with different academic backgrounds fail to speak a common scientific language or fail to upgrade themselves of advances in each other's fields. What is needed now, if the desire exists, is a tacit understanding, not enforced by authorities that sharing ideas across such traditionally separate field will give birth to innovations that will drive an integrative biosciences program.
“Team science” has its critics and it would be unfair to gloss over its many challenges. First authorship of publications is a power-keg issue and researcher individuality is often lost in the collective whole. An effective way around authorship is to be so productive that all the key research group leaders take turns to be first authors on different manuscripts.
As is true in all inter-personal relationships, mutual respect and trust — and knowing when not to take yourself too seriously, as for example, letting go of the “academic pomposity,” ego-wars and the “Kutaenism (Twi word meaning he/she is kuntae)” that is common to our collegial milleu - will be instrumental in creating meaningful collegial relationships and in establishing cohesive and respectful and tolerant group identity whose productivity can transcend time, creed and gender.
“Team Science” will assist us to re-vamp some aspects of our publication culture. Take a typical publication from “Team Science” research group based in Europe or in North America and you’re literally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data presented as support for their operative hypothesis. It’s an unfair contest when we make the comparison with ours given our obvious socio-economic bottlenecks but we have to make this comparison nonetheless, if we wish to remain true to our inner convictions. I mean no offense to anyone who has worked hard to compile an impressive list of publications. I bear you no malice, you deserve the recognition. All I am saying is that our publication culture has been hijacked by the “count game” while Euro-American and even parts of Asia have its focus more on overwhelming quality with the “count game” relegated to a peripheral issue in the background.
Our default pattern is to hide in our offices, do our little research in our own little corner and crank out more publication to pad our CV. But many biomedical research works cover new and exciting scientific terrains that will be beneficial to our academic advancement and an aggregation of KNUST researchers in the biosciences “Team Science” can place this institution at the frontiers of integrative Biosciences. More advanced interdisciplinary teams can build on the concept of bench-to-bedside research work where basic and clinical investigators join hands to make significant contributions to the field of Clinical and Translational research offering their scientific product directly to patients in our Teaching Hospitals.
The central question is: how do we harness the advantages of “Team Science” after we have formed groups? Institutional support is key-at least provision of start-up funds to new hires to get their research started will be ideal. Provision of just basic facilities like a laminar hood for cell and tissue culture will be excellent. And an administrative stance that smiles and pats you on the back and tells you with care that they feel your pain and understand your frustration but are working assiduously to address them. Why gathering equipment and glassware for a basic research should be saddled with so much frustration that it literally becomes a PhD-type project in itself is beyond my comprehension.
I am generally wary of slogans, clichés and generalizations but few efforts deserve accolades for high productivity and for high benefit to risk ratio than the “Big Science,” “Team Science” “Big Data Science” concept. Given the pervasive role of multi-disciplinary studies in contemporary academia, the introduction of “Big Science” concepts is essential training for present and future students whose future professional and academic careers will be increasingly characterized by interdisciplinary team-work and approaches. Consequently, there is a rapidly increasing need to train KNUST students to traverse several fields in order to fertilize new ideas and give birth to innovations that require a working knowledge of interdisciplinary concepts. On the national platform, this approach will provide our students with better perspectives, with enhanced skills, and with excellent acquired expertise that are unavailable anywhere else in Ghana.