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International researchers call out for support of "synthetic science"

Science should look to the past for answers, some researchers argue.
Science should look to the past for answers, some researchers argue., by subscription

As science pushes forward in attempts at new discoveries, inventions and technology, many researchers are championing a different way of approaching a number of scientific fields – “synthetic science.”

The term “synthetic science” is a simple one to understand; in this approach, researchers look to the past for answers pertaining to the present and future. It is argued that looking through decades and decades of already collected data, and looking at those data with new eyes, new conclusions and discoveries can be, and have been, made.

"By putting together pieces of prior research, it is possible to transform how you do science and open the doors to findings that previously were unattainable," said Brian Sidlauskas, a former postdoctoral researcher at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and lead author on the recent call-to-arms, of sorts. "But such an approach runs counter to the way science traditionally has been conducted, so pursuing synthetic science is somewhat risky."

Science has long been unfriendly to non-conventional approaches, whether it’s a “crackpot” theory that is shown to be relevant (many thought Darwin was said crackpot), so this seemingly simple approach may face problems, especially in the face of a new wave of younger scientists.

This is not an easy kind of thing to train for, the champions of this cause claim. The new scientists fresh out of post-grad have been long trained that science should be specialized – integrating two fields at best. So training for synthetic scientific methods is a special challenge at this point.

This concept of looking through previous data for new information is not a new one. In the recent paper in the journal Evolution ("Linking big: The continuing promise of evolutionary synthesis”), the one arguing for these methods, the authors of the paper cite the work of one J. John Sepkoski Jr., who compiled and analyzed a database of nearly 40,000 entries of organisms in the fossil records. During his project, which spanned 20 years, Sepkoski marked a number of mass extinctions that had previously gone unnoticed by researchers.

The authors on the study, scientists from institutions such as Duke University and the Imperial College London, will continue to champion this worthy cause, hoping that in the future, more scientists will turn to past data. For more information, check out the abstract to the article online at Evolution.


  • Vince Lamb - Detroit Science News Examiner 5 years ago

    I have an even better idea of a scientist whose peers thought he was cranky--Alfred Wegener, who proposed continental drift. His ideas were considered fringe in geology for more than fifty years after they were first proposed. Darwin's ideas were accepted by other biologists in less time than that!

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