Molecular Biology: The New Modes
These two books show the human face of fast-track academic molecular biology. Hall tells the story of the bi-coastal race among academic research groups in the 1970s to clone the insulin gene: the Boyer, Rutter, Riggs, and Goodman coalition based in San Francisco vs. the Gilbert group at Harvard. He describes how their research program was affected, even generated, by the industrial support of academic research. Angier portrays a major player in the 1980s effort to define the makeup of the human oncogene. She contrasts Robert Weinberg's group at MIT and its research style with the enterprise of a close competitor, Michael Wigler of Cold Spring Harbor.
The protagonists are established investigators, with few exceptions long gone from the bench, who coordinate groups of graduate students, post-docs, and technicians. The organizational style of the groups and the relationships among the members are as much a part of the story as the exploits of individual scientists, senior or junior. These mid-sized groups of a dozen or so persons combine elements of patriarchal authority and egalitarian social relationships. Neither a research bureaucracy like a high energy physics facility nor collaborations of two or three persons, they constitute a distinctive model of research enterprise with many of the attritubes of a small firm.
The literary model for these books is James Watson's The Double helix. That account of collaboration and competition, insight and intrigue in laboratory and pub, demonstrated that the social life of science is as integral to the discovery process as model-building, data collection, and theorizing. What takes these works of science journalism beyond replication is the normative change that science has undergone in its transformation from an individual to a group practice.
Traditional teamwork in academic science consists of a collaboration of equals such as two or three professors or an apprenticeship relationship of a professor and a few students. The former typically arises from mutual generation of an idea by colleagues, discussions between a theorist and an experimentalist, or combinations of complementary research skills...