Where Is Science Going? . by Nuno Jalles

Science is changing fast and it is no longer hypothesis-driven as it used to be. Any kind of research now deals with increasing amounts of information and data. Fields such as astronomy, genomics, physics, drug research in biomedicine, and several other disciplines have been using Information Technology (IT) to analyze tones of data and make a sense of it. We’ve got to a point where the hypothesis are being generated after you get the data from experiments.

High-throughput computer technology combined with mathematical algorithms are used to answer questions. In other words, instead of generating data based on a specific hypothesis, you generate huge amounts of data and then you ask the questions, thus formulating a hypothesis – the movement is going backwards! There is a contemporary overlap between Information Technology and any kind of research. We have always used computers for specific tasks, especially in research, but now they are faster, the internet is even faster and we are creating an enormous gap. Science and young scientists (and I mean generally) are not prepared for this information overload named “Big Data”. We are generating more data in the last years than we have produced in our entire existence. A specific example is the ENCODE project that is trying to map all functional regions in a person’s DNA (check the article “ENCODE: Big Data to deal with human complexity ” for more information).

Science is facing an increasing deficit in people that can not only handle Big Data, but more importantly that have the knowledge and skills to generate value from this data. The problem is that researchers need a toolbox of techniques, skills, processes and abilities to construct new solutions based on this accumulation of information. We are now giving lots of credit to computational power and are forgetting the main scientific ingredients: human curiosity and instinct; computers do not have these two ingredients. We’ve reached a point where supercomputers are fast enough to crunch data just as easily as anything else. This could be good or bad, it depends on how we use this power. Time will tell.

NUNO JALLES is a Doctor and cycling lover – He lives in Lisbon, Portugal

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