"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Isaac Newton (1676).
The scientific process of discovery is a slow and incremental one, building layer upon layer on the shoulders of previous generations of scientists. As new discoveries are made and become accepted, they form the foundation of our understanding for further research and the cycle continues. Human desire for recognition is also closely linked to scientific progress, as scientists strive to advance their fields and be acknowledged for their contributions.
This duality of linear progression in science and personal reputation dates back to before 1665, when the Journal des Sçavans (France) followed shortly after by Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in England appeared and provided a means for scientists to communicate their findings and to disseminate new discoveries to the broader public. Prior to this, scientists would mostly communicate with each other in personal letters, however, often being careful to lay claim without revealing the underlying discovery.
An example of this dates from 1609, when Galileo first discovers the rings of Saturn. Instead of telling everyone immediately, he writes it down, privately. He then scrambles the letters into an anagram, and sends it to several of his astronomer rivals, ensuring that if later, they too make the same observation, he can reveal the anagram and maintain his recognition. This was unfortunately not uncommon for the time: Leonardo, Hooke, Huyens and even Newton, all used a similar method of scientific obfuscation to promote their personal reputation. Even today, the importance of individual recognition in scientific discoveries is driven in part by the competitive nature of the scientific community. Even since the earliest discoveries, scientists are still driven at the core by a human nature that constantly seeks to establish an individual reputation to secure their place in history.
Unfortunately, whilst scientific innovation and its pace have advanced enormously in the modern era, the human requirement to simultaneously advance the personal reputation is equally still present. Sadly, in my career to date, it has not been uncommon to see scientists sitting on important research findings for years because either they don’t yet fully understand it, or don’t have the ability to progress the work due to resources or access to expertise. Sometimes, the underlying discovery, being so great, that if disseminated and allowed to be furthered by scientists globally, could have meaningfully improved patients' lives much sooner. The old proverb "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together" springs to mind. Imagine the possibilities if our egos could get out of the way.
Change is underway.
Up until recently, the primary choice for those with a research-orientated path was a career in academia. However, with the rapid advancement of technology and the rise of entrepreneurship, the underlying incentives for research are evolving. I’ve observed numerous times over the past few years in particular, the best and brightest PhDs and postdocs are increasingly drawn towards industry and starting their own companies, leading to an explosion of biotech companies. The incentives for this shift are clear. Firstly, the financial rewards of industry, secondarily, industry offers a more structured career path, with many more opportunities for scientists to advance and grow.
Furthermore, entrepreneurship is fast becoming increasingly attractive for ambitious researchers. Young scientists typically sitting underneath older more senior independent investigators are increasingly drawn to the idea of developing their own ideas and technologies in their own right, and the rise of start-up culture has made it much easier for them to do so. The old world view of scientific ownership tied to scientific hierarchy is changing. This is particularly true in fields like biotechnology and software development, where start-ups can make rapid and significant contributions to scientific progress even with minimal resources. Ultimately, I believe these evolving incentives in research are leading to a more diverse and dynamic scientific community.
The stage is set for truly rapid scientific progress.
The trend of scientists moving away from academia and towards industry and entrepreneurship is also being fuelled by the increasing digitisation of biology. With the exponential growth of biological data being generated and it being increasingly analysed through complex computational methods, the scientific community is faced with the challenge of keeping pace with this rapidly evolving landscape. The traditional medium of scientific knowledge, which was once the written word of scientists, is quickly becoming insufficient to capture the vast amount of information being produced. As a result, the use of advanced computational tools and artificial intelligence is becoming essential to unlock insights and understanding from this torrent of data.
Excitingly, this shift towards a more digital and automated approach to scientific discovery presents new opportunities for innovation, but also raises important questions about the role of human interpretation and understanding in the scientific process. The challenge for the scientific community will be striking a balance between leveraging the power of technology and preserving the human element of scientific discovery. Perhaps the bigger question is - should we even care about the latter?
Why I founded Mass Dynamics.
I believe we stand at the precipice of a new era of scientific progress. The availability of data and its untapped potential are now at a point where we could see significant advances in scientific progress. This is due to technological advancements, machine learning, and the development of interoperability between humans to facilitate research outcomes without complete human understanding.
The inherent complexity of large datasets, particularly -omics data, however, presents significant challenges to scientists. These datasets are often too large and complex to analyse using traditional methods, making it difficult to extract useful information. Even to this day, in my previous day job of running a collaborative proteomics platform, scientists' comprehension and interpretation of most large-scale -omic experimental analyses is just scratching the surface.
I co-founded Mass Dynamics to address this challenge. By implementing and providing appropriate standardised and automated tools for biological researchers that are not experts in either -omics, bioinformatics or statistics, we are providing a capability to enable straightforward quality control, assessment of experimental health and statistical analysis, insight generation and decision making from complex datasets. Overall, our platform is designed to optimise collaboration between experts and biologists. This flexible and seamless data analysis environment accelerates research teams’ abilities to extract interpretable information and maximise what their experiments can deliver.
In this rapidly evolving landscape of scientific progress, it is imperative for the scientific community to embrace and adapt to new ways of thinking. The digitalisation of biology and the availability of vast amounts of data have opened up unprecedented opportunities for innovation. However, to fully leverage the potential of this digital era, we must overcome the challenges posed by the complexity of large datasets and the limitations of traditional analysis methods.
Mass Dynamics was founded with the vision of empowering biologists to bridge the gap between data and insights. Our platform provides standardised and automated tools for biological researchers, regardless of their expertise in -omics, bioinformatics, or statistics. By offering a seamless and collaborative data analysis environment, we enable scientists to unlock the valuable information, often found hidden within complex datasets.
But our mission extends beyond providing technological solutions. We believe that true scientific progress requires a shift in mindset—a willingness to let go of one's ego and embrace the power of collective knowledge. As we strive to facilitate collaboration between different types of experts and biologists, we envision a future where scientific interaction becomes a seamless part of scientific exploration, allowing researchers to focus on interpreting results, generating insights, rapidly iterating and making ground-breaking discoveries.
The time is fast approaching for the scientific community to embrace this new era of scientific progress. By embracing the digital revolution and working together to harness the potential of advanced computational tools, we can accelerate the pace of discovery and bring about transformative changes in the way science is conducted. Let us break free from the constraints of the past and embark on a journey where data-driven insights and collaborative efforts lead us to unprecedented scientific advancements. The future is bright, and it starts with a willingness to adapt, evolve, and embrace the opportunities that lie before us.
MD 2.0 can be accessed at app.massdynamics.com, and the source code for the workflows and knowledge integration is accessible at https://github.com/massdynamics/.
Thanks for reading this series of blog posts written by Andrew Webb - Chief Scientist and co-founder of Mass Dynamics. In addition to his role at Mass Dynamics, Andrew is an Associate Professor at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and co-founder and inventor at IonOpticks. Across each of these dynamic positions, he is on the coalface of leading science in both industry and academia. We’re thrilled that in this series of blog posts, Andrew shares with us how he discovered Mass Spectrometry, what he sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities, what the broader MS community is doing to drive impactful outcomes, who is reaping the benefits of MS and where he sees the future of analytical science heading.
Please note that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author's employers, organization, committees or other group or individual