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Liberal Knowledge

In a scientific society transformed by the internet, the liberal arts are essential in forming effective, responsible scientists. Michael Foley ’84, chemical biology platform director for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, explains why.

Today’s scientists have unprecedented access to information and technology.The sequencing of the human genome and the reach of the internet have changed forever how the sciences are deployed to propel the understanding and treatment of human disease. Human genome sequencing has provided insight into the root cause of some afflictions, as well as the ability to predict susceptibility to disease in the future. The internet has removed geographic boundaries that once separated scientists, creating an integrated global scientific society that can function at the level of an individual research project.

To be effective and responsible in this environment, scientists must be much more than experts within their domain.They must have a basic understanding of many disciplines, understand the culture and customs of global team members,and have the moral foundation to face the complex issues that their access to powerful data sets and technologies presents. A liberal arts education prepares students for these challenges in several ways.

Scientific society was once siloed by discipline and geography. It is now common for multi-disciplinary teams to enroll members from around the globe. Successful citizens of this global scientific society must have both a working knowledge of the disciplines of other team members and the ability to critically evaluate the data these fellow scientists provide. A desire to learn new approaches and techniques also helps scientists solve intractable problems together. Because academic and industrial research teams often have members in Europe, North America and Asia, an effective scientist also must understand and respect the cultures and customs of individual team members in order to create a high-performing team. Likewise, the ability to speak a second or third language has never been more valuable in the sciences.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the global scientific citizen is deciding when, where and how new scientific insights and technologies should be implemented. Just because it is possible to implement a technology does not mean it is right to do so from a moral or ethical standpoint. As new technologies emerge – technologies that allow us the ability to place individual genetic sequence data into cloud computing environments – great care must be taken to ensure patient confidentiality. Successful scientists have the moral and scientific foundation to be responsible stewards of this information.

For all these reasons, a liberal arts education has never been more important in the sciences. With the foundation to think about what is best for society while advancing scientific knowledge, a scientist becomes more than a role player on a project. S/he equips her/himself to address the scientific and moral issues that present themselves on a daily basis in a global scientific society.

March 27, 2013