Modern Science: Understanding the Scientific Method in the 21st Century

Falling Walls Circle Tables are lending the spotlight to world-leading scientists, science strategists and policy-makers from academia, business and politics discuss how we can apply science, research and innovation to get the world moving again.

In the 21st Century we have generated data like never before, while simultaneously challenging the expertise that is vital to our understanding of this information. In this Falling Walls Circle Table, the panel asks how we can best adapt and update the scientific method for modern science.

In spite of new automated tools to analyse huge quantities of data, expert knowledge is still needed in modern science to transform correlations into meaningful conclusions. Algorithms must be designed so that they can share their reasoning, not just their results. And different labs must all use their own methods to test the robustness and reproducibility of any deductions. As Edith Heard explains, “the best way to approach any set of data is to attack it from every possible angle.”

Modern science necessitates collaborations between disciplines, encouraging researchers to learn from other subjects, including the humanities and social sciences. And by working to open up both data and methods, scientists can foster truly open attitudes to research itself.

Edith Heard, PhD, FRS is a British scientist and Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. She graduated from Cambridge University in 1986, specializing in genetics, and then carried out her PhD at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, working on gene amplification mechanisms in cancer. She moved to the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1990, as a postdoc, which is where she began her studies on the epigenetic process of X-chromosome inactivation. In 2000 she spent a year at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the USA as a visiting scientist, before moving to the Institut Curie in 2001, where she was director of the Genetics and Developmental Biology Department.

Edith’s laboratory focuses on epigenetic processes in mammals, with a particular interest in chromosome biology and the role of non-coding RNAs, chromatin structure and nuclear organization, in the establishment and maintenance of differential expression patterns during development and in disease. She became an EMBO member in 2005, was awarded the CNRS Silver medal in 2008 and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2013. 

Fosca Giannotti is a director of research of computer science at the Information Science and Technology Institute “A. Faedo” of the National Research Council, Pisa, Italy. Fosca Giannotti is a pioneering scientist in mobility data mining, social network analysis and privacy-preserving data mining. Fosca leads the Pisa KDD Lab – Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining Laboratory, a joint research initiative of the University of Pisa and ISTI-CNR, founded in 1994 as one of the earliest research lab on data mining. She is author of more than 300 papers. She has coordinated tens of European projects and industrial collaborations. Fosca is currently the coordinator of SoBigData,the European research infrastructure on Big Data Analytics and Social Mining, an ecosystem of ten cutting edge European research centres providing an open platform for interdisciplinary data science and data-driven innovation. 

Sabina Leonelli is Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Exeter, where she co-directs the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis). She is Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (21-22), Alan Turing Institute, Academia Europaea and Académie Internationale de Philosophie de la Science; Editor-in-Chief of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences; and twice ERC grantee. Her books include Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study (2016), Data Journeys in the Sciences (2020) and Data in Society: A Critical Introduction (2021).

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