The Social Sciences

Scientists talk all the time. It's a key element to doing the work.

The halls and meeting rooms at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory were abuzz with conversation during our visit there for the Biology of DNA conference in February 2003. Standing in front of "posters," visual presentations of current research, scientists challenged one another and shared their ideas between sips of wine and nibbles of hors d'oeuvres. To an outsider, it might have looked like a huge company party. But scientists know that this informal exchange of ideas and experiences is as vital to the progress of science as the work done in their laboratories.

Behind the Scenes at the Biology of DNA Conference
Chatting in Blackford Bar
See science in action: Postings from our crew, who prowled the halls and eavesdropped on conversations at the Biology of DNA conference.

Communication between scientists has always been an important part of research. Even while James Watson and Francis Crick were racing against chemist Linus Pauling to discover the structure of DNA in the early 1950s, they exchanged ideas through correspondence with him. Today, with tens of thousands of researchers around the world studying DNA, meetings and conferences are an important way of bringing many researchers together in one place to learn from each other.

"People hold scientific meetings all over the place," says researcher Eric Lander. "But the one meeting you come to religiously is the Cold Spring Harbor Genome Meeting." Cold Spring Harbor, he says, is where the masses convene. It’s where molecular biology began, and where the luminaries in the field continue to come for serious discussion with each other.

Crew in studio   Live Webcasts
from the Biology of DNA conference.

Meet some of the luminaries we spoke with live in our Webcast studio at Cold Spring Harbor.

Jan Witkowski - Director of CSHL's Banbury Center

Walter Gilbert - Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology Dept., Harvard

Sydney Brenner - Distinguished Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Carol Greider - Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Johns Hopkins University

Bruce Stillman - Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

James Watson - President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Francis Collins - Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute

Eric Lander - Director of the Whitehead Institute's Center for Genome Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"People really do interact and there is really an enormous number of ideas and experiments designed," notes Bruce Stillman, director of CSHL, speaking about the Laboratory's conferences. "That comes out of just sitting around and talking at these meetings."

The ability to share information beyond conferences also has a profound impact on scientific research. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project (HGP), explains that when the project began in 1990, one of the big questions was how to distribute all the information. The Internet has not only simplified that task, but allowed the HGP to set a new standard in information availability. Rather than waiting until they publish a paper, scientists post new information on the Web as soon as it’s available. "If this information was going to help humankind, there was no justification for having even a day’s delay in having access," says Collins, noting that the Web allows anyone to access research results. "You don’t have to be at Harvard or MIT or Stanford to be able to work on the genome data," he notes. "It’s there, you can be in the Third World and have as equal access as anybody else."

Despite the Web’s usefulness, nothing greases the wheels of discussion like a tête-à-tête in an informal setting like the CSHL conferences. Personal contact breaks down barriers, says Jan Witkowski, director and meeting organizer for Cold Spring Harbor’s Banbury Center. This is especially true in Cold Spring’s bar, where, he says, "a beer or two will loosen the tongue, and you might say things about your current work that you don’t do otherwise."





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