The Centralization AND Decentralization of Science

January 14 2009 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Science   Year: General   Rating: 2

In his first ever post on the NYTimes' The Wild Side blog, biologist Aaron Hirsch describes what he sees as the increasing centralization and decentralization of scienctific processes.  These new approaches, he argues, are driving larger and more complex efforts to generate more useful useful data in different ways.

Centralization: Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.Centralization of Information

Hirsch attributes this to the high cost of powerful machines and technologies that can quickly generate results that otherwise would take far longer to discover.  This new dependence on massive facilities or operations, he argues, is changing the nature of the scientist.

It’s not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators.

Decentralization: Simultaneously, we are are experiencing a huge decentralization of much of our scientific process through projects such as SETI that tap the distributed power of personal laptops.  Hirsch labels this "Citizen Science".

Citizen Science ... involves the enlistment of large numbers of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data.

Top-Down & Bottom-Up: In other words, Hirsch, in his own language, describes that both top-down and bottom-up scientific approaches are gaining strength, an observation that has also been made in domains like business (Tom Malone's business centralization-decentralization cycles outlined in The Future of Work), the web (applications are constrained to the bandwidth and infrastructure available at the time, expand when the environment changes) and biology (punctuated equilibrium).

Given the climate of convergence it seems that we're now getting the best of both worlds in virtually all fields.  The accelerating quantification of systems and communication of that information is revealing important problems best suited for either top-down, bottom-up or hybrid approaches, while also accelerating the creation of the technologies and social media structures that can power these approaches. 

Through this lens of broader convergence, I take Hirsch's observations as a reinforcement of widespread acceleration, which in turn (autocatalytically) accelerates the formation (and dissolution) of top-down, bottom-up and hybrid stuctures.  In other words, it's more data that supports the forces underlying accelerating change.

Evolving Science is Critical to Acceleration: Thus the nature of acceleration is further revealed -- science appears to be playing a critical role in the process. (Not a shocker, of course, but an important part of the puzzle.)

So then, that said, what does this mean for us humans as we go about our lives? 

Hirsch hopes that "just as we build higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too should we strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations."

Fortunately, it appears that we're doing exactly that by bootstrapping our view(s) of the world by bettering our simulations and abstractions thanks largely to the new technologies and scientific breakthroughs we are making.

RELATED: Hirsch's analysis also lines up nicely with my earlier observations that evolutionary and intelligence studies are trending away from reductionism and that we're naturally developing more topsight of our system(s) .

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