Detroit Industry by Diego Rivera
To put this post in larger context, Paul Krugman stirred up quite a ruckus with a column that argued that a lot of jobs for college graduates are being rendered obsolete by technological change. For scientists, this is not a new phenomenon. At a recent celebration type-of-thing, a colleague explained how a Prominent Genomic Researcher realized that the next leap forward in biology was going to happen when biologists would view their science as an information science. The future was not going to involve benches filled with dozens of Ph.D.s furiously pipetting (his phrase). Which is why this section from a column by Adam Ruben bothers me:
I realized recently that if I examine it in a day-to-day sense, I have one job in science. It’s not curing malaria, which is what my grant says it should be. My job, in essence, is to move small amounts of liquid from one place to another. That’s it.
That’s it? This is what smart people do? This is our reward for withstanding years in the trash can?
Currently, we have many informatics problems to solve–the sheer scale of data has overwhelmed current analytical tools and techniques. When we will look back on the last decade or two, the transformation of much of biology into an information science (or, perhaps the incorporation of informatics into biology?) will be the dominant theme. But automation, I think, will be the next ‘great leap forward’ (to use a phrase), although it probably won’t begin to seriously happen for five to ten years.
Robots and other high-throughput systems are faster, more reliable, and don’t get bored. These tools would allow data production–and thus, biological discovery–to occur at a qualitatively greater scale (e.g., genomics). This would also, I think, decrease the need for graduate students and post-docs as cheap labor.
Obviously, some areas of biology and certain kinds of experiments aren’t amenable to robotics or or high-throughput methods. But the more we can incorporate these methods, the more time we would have to spend on these ‘unmechanizable’ activities. It would also increase the future job prospects of Ph.Ds. How? Training would focus not on technique (although one should have good technique), but on analysis. Those skills can be applied widely (e.g., DNA is DNA, whether it’s produced by Sanger sequencing or Illumina).
Anyway, that’s enough futurism.