Much of my own work on molecular evolution involves taking previously published data and analyzing it in new ways. This is likely to become increasingly easier as more molecular data becomes available, and it’s something any educated person with an Internet connection can do, even without a lab or research funds. In some ways, my work might challenge the popular perception of what makes someone a good scientist. The naïve idea is that a good scientist has excellent laboratory skills, and can perform a lot of sophisticated techniques. It’s true that there is substantial variation in lab skills among researchers. I’m on the low end in a lot of areas, and I have a lot of respect for people whose fingers glide over their pipettes to easily generate clean molecular data. But that’s not really the essence of doing science.
An apt analogy exists in the world of art. Some people are extremely skilled with a paintbrush, or clay, or a musical instrument. However, a good artist, in my opinion, is primarily someone who can think creatively and come up with novel artistic ideas. Someone with exceptional artistic skill, but who can only copy what others have done, is not really a notable artist. Creative types who lack, say, basic drawing abilities used to be out of luck, but technology is changing that. For example, the web is now full of “animutation” flash animation cartoons using other people’s images, but combining them in new, usually whimsical ways. My analyses of molecular data available on the web are like these animations which use pictures available on the web. Neither involves precise dexterity, but it’s the creative thought process that makes them truly science or art. In both magisteria, emergent styles scarcely imaginable a generation ago have appeared with the growth of information technology.