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Biologists merge methods, results from different disciplines to find new meaning in old data
Date:1/11/2010

Durham, NC A growing number of scientists are merging methods and results from different disciplines to extract new meaning from old data, says a team of researchers in a recent issue of Evolution.

As science becomes increasingly specialized and focused on new data, however, researchers who want to analyze previous findings may have a hard time getting funding and institutional support, the authors say. In a commentary piece in the journal Evolution, the authors argue for removing cultural and technological barriers to this process.

"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 article. "But such an approach runs counter to the way science traditionally has been conducted, so pursuing synthetic science is somewhat risky."

"We need to reduce the risk, remove the barriers, and encourage more pursuit of synthesis," said Sidlauskas, now a professor at Oregon State University. "The potential is staggering," he added.

Some of the most important research of the last quarter-century, the authors argue, has resulted from "synthetic science" an approach which combines concepts, tools, and data from multiple disciplines to produce new insights or discoveries.

They cite the work of J. John Sepkoski Jr., who over a 20-year period compiled a database of more than 37,000 entries tracking the first and last appearance of different organisms in the fossil record. The entries, they write, "cut across taxa, time, and geography to reveal emergent patterns over more than 500 million years of life that could not be extracted from the component data in isolation."

"That database led to previously undetermined knowledge of five separate mass extinctions through time, understand
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Contact: Brian Sidlauskas
brian.sidlauskas@oregonstate.edu
541-737-1939
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
Source:Eurekalert

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