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1025. Integration of Scientific Cultures in the Development of a Predictive Science of the Biosphere

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1025. Integration of Scientific Cultures in the Development of a Predictive Science of the Biosphere


One of the greatest challenges of science is to understand the structure, dynamics, and evolution of the biosphere and, ultimately, to construct a theory that can be quantitatively predicted and supported by data, observations, and experiments. For example, being able to predict the future of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning can help us predict the timing and magnitude of the next pandemic, as well as the timing and likelihood of a catastrophic tipping point in the Amazon tropical forest. This can help us develop strategies to minimize negative impacts and mitigate disaster risk.

The biosphere has an extremely complex structure because biological processes span a wide range of spatio-temporal scales. On the other hand, advances in atmospheric and ocean science have made it possible to incorporate changes in global temperature and to accurately predict future temperature changes and circulation patterns. In the same way, in order to respond to the various challenges facing the biosphere in the Anthropocene, science must also advance to solve extremely complex global challenges.

A paper published in PNAS argues that the integration of scientific cultures that transcends interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for constructing a predictive science of the biosphere.

In practice, the paper argues that progress in predictive science tends to be slow, not due to a lack of data or lack of experiments, but rather due to tensions between different scientific disciplines. Here, we define scientific cultures as the processes by which information and knowledge are discovered, shared, discussed, and understood. The lack of integration of scientific cultures can stifle deep insight and lead to the classic saying, "the whole is less than the sum of its parts."

The paper identifies the following three scientific cultures that are common to all scientific disciplines:

1 The variance culture:This culture studies the quantitative variance and diversity that occurs in nature, and is the basis of modern biology, molecular biology, and genetics. Detailed observations focusing on variance and deviations are emphasized, along with experiments and observations that replicate natural variance. However, there is a tendency to downplay the understanding of frameworks that model and generalize information or explain central tendencies that cause deviations.

2 The exactitude culture:This culture pursues a scientific understanding of the target system with the utmost precision. It focuses on specific phenomena, taking an opposite stance to simplification and generalization. It uses an extremely large number of variables, focusing on detailed dynamics, mechanisms, and interactions within specific contexts. Inter-model evaluations using precise statistical models, machine learning (ML), and AI are part of this culture.

3 The coarse-grained culture: This culture seeks general laws that span diversity and deviation. It aims for abstraction and simplification, attempting to explain the principles that lead to variance. It relies on mathematical inference to produce probabilistic outcomes. However, there is a tendency to overlook details that could lead to new discoveries.


One of the biggest challenges in addressing the problems facing the biosphere lies in constructing an integrated conceptual framework that leads to building reliable predictive models for conservation decision-making. Constructive discussion among the three cultures should be a healthy process for rethinking false worldviews and paradigms. However, historically and currently, biosphere science has placed emphasis on exactitude and variance cultures, and has not fully utilized coarse-grained culture. If we do not acknowledge the existence of each other's scientific cultures and repeatedly incorporate ideas into scientific discoveries and advancements, we may face a variety of challenges that make it increasingly difficult to predict. The development of each culture also relies on sharing insights and methods from other cultures.

As a solution, the paper recommends integration through scientific transculturalism, which goes beyond the general promotion of interdisciplinary collaboration, in developing a predictive science of the biosphere.



Brian J. Enquist, Christopher P. Kempes, and Geoffrey B. West. Developing a predictive science of the biosphere requires the integration of scientific cultures, PNAS. April 19, 2024 121 (19) e2209196121 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2209196121

Contributor: IIYAMA Miyuki (Information Program)


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