Some believe that enhancing collaboration across the disciplines of natural science, social science, and technology is the only way to design and implement “smart” solutions to complex problems (Ledford 2015b). Indeed, when UK researchers were asked to identify publications that made a “significant impact outside academia,” 80 percent were the work of interdisciplinary teams (Rylance 2015). In biotech, goals such as the safe and ethical development of CRISPR-mediated gene therapies, the scaled-up adoption of GM livestock in agriculture, and a smooth transition to biofuels through the development of integrated biorefineries, will all require interdisciplinary teams. Of course, the idea of leveraging diverse teams to accomplish big goals is not new. Such teams put a man on the moon and sequenced the human genome; but what will it take to make these kinds of projects more commonplace?

Overcoming Barriers to Interdisciplinarity

Despite ever more talk about interdisciplinarity, the scientific community has little to show for it. Some of the most recognized barriers to a “big science” cultural shift include the:

  • • mutual misunderstanding of specialized jargon,
  • • lack of respect for or value placed on diverse disciplines and approaches,
  • • disciplinary siloing in academic units, physical space, and journals,
  • • reward structures that ignore, or even discourage, partnering,
  • • negative correlation between interdisciplinary research proposals and funding success (Bromham, Dinnage, and Hua 2016), and
  • • lack of “T”-shaped scientists with cross-disciplinary competence and deep disciplinary expertise.

So what can be done? Perhaps a shift toward the open sharing of scientific findings—what some call “open science”—will enhance scientific critique and collaboration. It may be necessary to embrace a renewed pledge of professional ethical standards, grounded in a sincere dedication to self-reflection and respectful discourse with other scientists (Davies and Wolf-Phillips 2006).

Perhaps the most promising approach involves carefully rearing the next generation of scientists to have the skills and preference for working across disciplinary boundaries. Framing STEM content within increasingly complex real-world problems will draw-in students and encourage inclusivity. Explicitly teaching skills associated with communication, teaming, and community-building will promote these behaviors in the working world. The importance of integration will be reinforced by reuniting STEM with the arts (i.e., a movement called STEAM). High-impact K-through- college science education initiatives, such as the iGEM competition, will make big picture, problem-based, socially responsible collaboration and thinking the “norm” for the next generation. In turn, these “Next Gen” scientists will reform funding, reward, and academic structures accordingly as they rise through the ranks. In doing so, they will be well positioned to truly take-on our—and their—wicked problems.

Box 6.1. Current and future biotechnology careers

Traditional careers in biotech have involved academic and industrial R&D, quality control and assurance, biomanufacturing, policy/ biosafety and regulation, reproductive genetic counseling, scientific project management and consulting, molecular plant breeding, public health monitoring, sales and marketing, and clinical testing. These professional niches continue to flourish while emerging technologies give rise to even more jobs in bioinformatics, computational modeling, biostatistics, and synthetic and systems biology.

Significant growth of the industry worldwide is evidence of biotech’s continued prosperity. The United States is a global leader, housing the most public biotech companies and garnering the greatest revenues (~$93.1 billion in 2014). In one year alone (2013-2014), U.S. R&D spending increased by 22 percent, revenues shot up 29 percent,

(Continued ) and employees increased by 10 percent. U.S. market leaders, as of 2014, included Gilead Sciences, Amgen, Biogen, Celgene, and Regen- eron, with locations across the globe. U.S. biotech innovation hubs are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, New England, San Diego, and New York State. About 78 percent (233) of American public biotech companies are located in these areas (EY 2015).

As the next generation may hold the most promise for tackling our world’s wicked problems, opportunities for new professionals to establish successful careers that make substantial positive contributions to society abound. Those interested in pursuing a career in biotechnology should develop skills for staying agile and competitive in a rapidly changing field. Strong candidates have exemplary:

  • • written and oral communication skills,
  • • abilities to assemble, engage, and manage diverse teams of experts,
  • • skills associated with analyzing complex systems at a variety of scales, and
  • • working competencies in math, statistics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and the social sciences.

With “bench science” at the root of all areas of biotech, authentic research experiences translate to career readiness and performance both in and outside the lab. Lastly, with the growing shift toward “big science,” individuals trained in dedicated interdisciplinary undergraduate or advanced degree programs will be particularly poised to significantly impact the field and the world.


Wicked problems are complex and interconnected. Addressing them will require that we align our goals and pool our resources as a global community. The interdisciplinary and applied nature of biotechnology makes it well-suited for addressing problems of disease, food production, and environmental degradation. Molecular tools to detect diverse analytes are critical components of medicine, agriculture, and environmental protection. Recombinant DNA technologies and organismal cloning are at the root of nearly all modern biotechnologies. New tools are emerging out of advances in ‘omics, systems biology, synthetic biology, and genome editing. Actualizing the promise of biotechnology will require trust-building among stakeholders (e.g., developers, policy-makers, end-users) and a scientific community open to and capable of true interdisciplinary work.

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