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The Scientist as Citizen: Finding your voice

By Philip Howard | 14 June 2023

What happens when the nature of your research seems to necessitate urgent political action, particularly in the fields of climate change, biodiversity and air quality? Should you be the passive, contemplative scientist who lets their data do the talking? Or should you take a more active role as a concerned citizen, and, if so, how could you give voice to your concerns?

In contemporary research culture, with ‘the impact agenda’ so important to research finance, scientists and the institution they represent need to be to be open to discussing all these questions. In the second Good Science Friday Forum, with 50 undergrads, postgrads, postdocs and academics, we did exactly that.

Led by Claudia Cannon and Stephen Webster, for a brief hour over lunchtime we were invited to ‘close the scrolls of information, let the laptop sleep, sit still and shut your eyes’ to listen to the voices of a podcaster, policymaker, pedagogue and, as you may have guessed, a poet.

‘a story you have to tell’

It was Nick Drake, the poet but also a dramatist and a screenwriter, who opened the meeting giving voice to his form of activism – storytelling. During an expedition to Svalbard his first reaction of a sense of wonder at its sublime beauty was transcended through his own reflections and conversations with scientists. He then saw the pollution in the water and the ice, and the effects of global warming such as variations in the thermohaline circulation. His ‘activist’ response was to write a book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012). It is the voices of people who were there, in voices both humans and non-human and to write in the voices of time, the voices of the past, the present and the future.

Pete Knapp, a PhD student at Imperial in indoor air pollution is active in Imperial Climate Action. Like Nick, Pete communicates with stories. His turning point to activism occurred as he overflew endless palm forests on his way to see a much-depleted rainforest in Borneo. On joining Scientists for Extinction Rebellion Pete started a podcast called ‘Tipping Points’ to share the stories of why some scientists became environmental activists. He extended this to those in other professions and to those under 25 who have yet to fix on a career.

‘not written in stone but in time’

Becky Mawhood, Head of the Climate and Environment Hub, UK Parliament, highlighted some other ways to get your voice heard. Our laws, after all, are not fixed but can change with convincing evidence. Scientists, citizens and activists can influence and shape policy by representing their research through bodies such as The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Common and Lords Libraries and Select Committees which scrutinise Government policy.  Becky’s team and a Knowledge Exchange unit support the exchange of information and expertise between researchers and the UK Parliament.

Tilly Collins is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Imperials’ Centre for Environmental Policy. It is now on its 45th MSc cohort. Tilly’s environmental activism is voiced through her teaching of people about sustainability. These people, spread across the world, can make an impact, ‘nudging’ others such that environmental benefits, such as not eating meat, become globally normalised.

‘we are in this together’

It was clear from the audience reaction that they wanted themselves to go beyond the passive. Each person was striving to find their own voice but all felt some constraints in their desire to do more. Several referenced the ‘invisible ivory tower’ and how that challenged them to be able to tell their story. The behind-the-scenes environmental activist professor did not want to get arrested and ‘embarrass their husband. The undergraduate wanted to be supported by a wider Imperial culture, as did the academic who experienced a tension at Imperial between what he thought and what he could say due to perceived funding issues. Some needed ‘safe spaces’ such as publishing on Instagram to showcase their research to connect globally with like-minded people.

‘now open your eyes’

As the brief hour closed and we prepared to return to our desks and labs the last words were for the panellists. The need to engage all, ‘friend or foe’ in telling the story of your research was emphasised and the power of influencing policy was reiterated. Perhaps a good overall summary was inspired by Tilly’s years of teaching. Whichever voice you choose, be true to the science, true to your research, and, most importantly, be true to yourself.

The meeting closed with Nick Drake reading his poem ‘The Voice of the Future’. You can hear his poem being powerfully performed in the attached link.  Please, take two minutes out of your ‘busy’ and ‘colourful lives’ to listen to these and other voices.

A thesaurus of doubt

As we shall discuss at the conference, doubt is a many-faceted aspect of science. To get a sense of the importance of doubt within the manifold of science, one would have to explore many disciplines, from metaphysics to logic to sociology to politics.

Special thanks are therefore due to MSc Science Communication alumnus Philip Howard, who has compiled for us a selection of thoughts on doubt and science. Quite rightly, considering his Imperial degree, Philip here is particularly concerned with the question of how doubt can best be handled in relation to the communication of science in public arenas.

Doubt is a fundamental element of science

  • Doubt is an essential part of the process of science. In the philosophy of science, from Sir Francis Bacon to Goethe to Sir Karl Popper, doubt in one’s hypotheses structures investigations, with their possible falsification perhaps just the next experiment away. For Popper, the route to good science is self-criticism.
  • It is a matter of metaphysics that science – because of its empirical grounding – cannot reach certain knowledge. The physicist Richard Feynman, in his 1955 ‘The Value of Science’ Caltech lecture, said ‘When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.’

Doubt is an engine of creativity

  • Jennifer Michael Hecht in her 2004 ‘Doubt: a history’ celebrates doubt, in an evolving religious context, as an engine of creativity and an alternative to the political and intellectual dangers of certainty. Her book is long, but highly recommended as an example of ‘synthetic’ non-fiction writing.
  • Why in science might we want to ‘protect’ doubt, and cherish it as a stimulus to thought? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said ‘there is no permanence in doubt; it incites the mind to closer inquiry and experiment, from which, if rightly managed, certainty proceeds, and in this alone can man find thorough satisfaction’. Goethe suggests then that it is the ‘unsettledness’ of doubt, the way it needles you (‘incites the mind’), that is creative.
  • Doubt ensures constructive dialogues between researchers and research groups. The clarity of settled knowledge emerges from the fog of competing hypotheses such that existing theories, and their inherent uncertainties, are replaced by new theories albeit with their own unknowns and doubts. Are we proud of a conclusion, if it was not accompanied by new questions and new doubts.
  • By the end of the Victorian era some thought physics to be complete. But Lord Kelvin’s famous ‘two clouds’ lecture, given at the Royal Institution in 1900, highlighted two problems of classical physics. These doubts were resolved by the new quantum and relativistic physics of Planck and Einstein.
  • Doubt is contemplative, but it also is practical. By unsettling us, it ensures that the complacencies of the great and the good can be challenged. Rutherford’s reference in 1933 to the industrial scale production of atomic energy as ‘Moonshine’ drove a doubting Leo Szilard to register a patent in 1934 for a viable chain reaction. Another example: Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, maintained that muriatic acid must contain oxygen. It took a young Humphry Davy, in 1810, to take the bold step to doubt the great man, and prove that muriatic acid, now called hydrochloric acid, contained no oxygen.

Doubt is more than just error bars, and eludes quantification

  • The communication of science to wider groups of people challenges how doubt is presented.
  • Emile Roux, an associate of Louis Pasteur and renowned scientist in his own right, said ‘Science appears calm and triumphant when it is completed; but science in the process of being done is only contradiction and torment, hope and disappointment.’
  • Covid showed to the public science in the moment and how doubt is part of ‘science in the process’. Error bars were not enough to express the uncertainties and doubts in the science and could hardly calm the multiple social and political forces that interacted with scientifically-based predictions.
  • In contrast, and as a taster of ‘Science Communication Studies’, see Brian Wynne’s paper on Cumbrian Hill farmers after the Chernobyl accident led to high levels of radioactive material in sheep.  The difficulty scientists had in acknowledging their own doubt and uncertainties, as they tried to undertand a situation far different from laboratory work and simple modesl led to them losing the trust of the hill farmers.
  • We scientists, rather prone to suggesting that the public don’t understand that science is uncertain, might on second thoughts admit that most people are used to handling uncertainty and doubt as a fact of life. Might ‘the general public’ be more at ease with scientific doubt than scientists imagine ?

Reasonable versus Unreasonable Doubt

  • Henri Poincaré, the great French physicist and mathematician, said ‘To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.’ And this is a basis for a thought-provoking article by David Allison, Gregory Pavela and Ivan Oransky.
  • How can we prevent the ‘illegitimate co-option of doubt’ being used to undermine good science. According to Allison, Pavela and Oransky these are the occasions when ‘doubt is [used to create] disingenuous expressions of skepticism, motivated by financial or other nonscientific interests, which are allowed to pervert scientific interests.’
  • But, on the other hand, we need to be careful as ‘The same tools used to discredit disingenuous expressions of doubt can be used against those who express well-supported doubt. Those with particular political views may declare some doubt to be unreasonable, even if it is actually quite reasonable.’
  • In presenting climate change science how should we communicate the uncertainty in climate science without that doubt undermining the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ science.

The ‘stupid’ do not doubt

  • Bertrand Russell said, ‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’
  • How should we present science, the implications of science and our doubts and uncertainties, without undermining the legitimate authority of the science itself, and our own long-held expertise?
  • In pushing back on those who try to exploit a scientific doubt to challenge the beyond reasonable doubt science, there is a danger. We need to avoid, as described by Allison, Pavela and Oransky, using counterproductive rhetoric to describe doubters as ‘“deniers,” “shills,” “fringe” persons, and the like”.
  • ‘There truly are people—some of them in positions of authority—who are promoting disingenuous and unreasonable expressions of doubt. However, if we slip and rely on non-scientific rhetorical devices to argue against them, then we invite others to use these rhetorical devices to dismiss cases in which scientific doubt is reasonable and even essential.
  • Are Allison et al right, when they say at the end of their article, ‘As scientists and scholars, we need to rise above [politics and rhetoric], stick to the science, and never give up the virtue of doubt’.

When dogma trumps doubt

  • The consequences of people who are convinced they are right, with no doubt as to the ‘truth’ of their absolute knowledge, can have varied and profound consequences, especially when scientific dogma allies itself with vested interests and political dogma.
  • Sometimes, scientists put doubt aside. Didier Raoult, a physician and a microbiologist, gained global fame for promoting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 despite no evidence for its effectiveness and the subsequent opposition from experts around the world. On the other hand Charles Darwin, no stranger to doubt, was exceptionally stubborn on behalf of his theory of natural selection, and his belief that modern humans are a single species.
  • A brilliant example of science communication, on the theme of dogma trumping doubt, comes in the episode ‘Knowledge or Certainty’ of Jacob Bronowski’s acclaimed 1973 Ascent of Man TV series. In it he says, ‘Science is a very human form of knowledge’ and scientists must always believe that they are ‘fallible and that they ‘may be mistaken’. The episode ends with Bronowski standing in a boggy pond outside Auschwitz. To Bronowksi, the consequences of a lack of doubt and the dominance of dogma and ignorance were all too plain to see and feel in the mud formed by the ashes of four million people. It is a theme echoed by the historian Sir Isiah Berlin, who saw, on occasion, a continuum between the simplifications of the Enlightenment, and totalitarianism.

‘I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.’

  • HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey 2001 also went on to say – ‘No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, fool-proof and incapable of error.’
  • Could AI systems express doubt and, if so, could they then be more useful or more dangerous?
  • Although much is written on AI and uncertainty there is very little on whether AI can ‘self-doubt’? Uncertainty in AI is about how AI deals with uncertain inputs or how humans assess the certainty of the output.
  • There seems to be very little researched or written on whether AI systems can express doubt about their own output. If AI cannot doubt then does it become, as for Russell’s ‘cocksure’, stupid?
  • Psychologist Steve Fleming at UCL argues that the ability to doubt separates humans from AI. The ‘metacognition’ of humans allows us to ‘think about our own thinking’ and ‘recognise when we might be wrong’.

Compiled by Philip Howard 26 August 2023 | Editor: Stephen Webster 

Reflections on doubt

The Good Science Project‘s first conference, the Day of Doubt, brings together leading scientists to debate today’s research culture and the values needed for good science. Any conference about research culture should encourage discussion and reflection, and in the Day of Doubt we hope everyone attending will feel free to contribute. All panel discussions will have plenty of time for audience Q and A; and after lunch, when we get into smaller groups, there should be ample opportunity for open debate.

Choosing your ‘reflection session’

We’ll be in touch with delegates in September to give you the opportunity to choose your ‘reflection session’. If you prefer to leave it to chance, or feel you cannot take your pick from such a rich offering, you can opt for ‘the lucky dip’, and the organisers will do the allocation for you. In advance, here is a short description of the likely themes of each session.

Questioning … public engagement

Join Professor Ken Arnold and Katherine Mathieson to discuss the role of public engagement as an increasingly important part of the scientist’s professional identity. What are the gains for a scientist, in doing public engagement work? How has public engagement progressed, in the last ten years? What do Ken and Katherine feel are the current challenges, in improving science-society relations? This session will also be an opportunity to learn about our facilitators’ institutions, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, where Ken is Director, and the Royal Institution, where Katherine is Director.

Questioning … interdisciplinarity

All universities are busy encouraging interdisciplinarity, with multiple centres and institutes joining the traditional disciplinary departments. There are many areas of urgent concern where the interdisciplinary approach seems obviously necessary – climate science being an example. And we are often told that it is at the boundaries between disciplines that the best ideas and the brightest creativity can be found. But how true is this? How easy is it to be an ‘interdisciplinary scientist’? Are there specific issues for such people in terms of publishing and funding? How best can we introduce interdisciplinarity into the curriculum? And how easy is it for the traditional departments to encourage their ambulatory researchers? Join Dr Isabella von Holstein, Translation and Research Manager at the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering, and Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Innovation at Imperial’s Grantham Institute, as they examine, and perhaps lay to rest, any doubts we might have about interdisciplinarity.

Questioning … excellence

Is it necessary for a scientist to be excellent? Does science require excellence, to advance and develop its solutions to our problems? Or is science basically dependent on being ‘normal’, as the historian Thomas Kuhn so famously said. Excellence is embedded in UK science because of its prime validator, the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF). But how can excellence be measured? And when it comes to excellence, is it a concept that hardwires into science a fear of failure? Is excellence a competitive feature, a personal matter, or a collaborative one? Most pertinently, what is the significance of recent news about REF 2028, and its plans to broaden the way we judge ourselves. Join two acknowledged experts in the field – Professors James Wilsdon and Stephen Curry – to debate the issue and put your views.

Questioning … scientific truth

After Francis Bacon began to trumpet the virtues of the experimental method 400 years ago, science as we still understand it gradually came to be regarded as the ‘royal road to the truth’. And it has certainly had that status for the past 200 years. Yet, as we have come to learn more about science’s own history, working practices and institutional settings, doubt has been cast on the sort of ‘truth’ that results from scientific inquiry. After all, scientists are fallible creatures operating within limited resources, and scientific findings themselves – including very major ones – invite falsification and are periodically overturned and replaced. Join philosopher and sociologist Steve Fuller, and Dr Stephen Webster, to explore the shifting and elusive forms of scientific truth, and its role in the modern university.

Questioning … scientific expertise

Head of Chemistry Oscar Ces, technician and educator Kat Harris, and surgeon, author and teacher Roger Kneebone, together try to articulate, and weave together, the many forms of expertise that make Imperial College – and all universities – such interesting places. Increasingly we know that science benefits from diverse viewpoints, and that must imply ‘diverse skills’ too. How easy is it for a university to make use of different sorts of expert? Actually, how good is research culture at folding together the insights of scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars? And how easy is it for science to welcome diverse perspectives, while also trying to promote across society the scientific, Enlightenment world view?

And if you haven’t registered yet…

If you enjoy discussion about science, have views about its place in society and the way it organises itself in universities, then this conference is for you. Expect a lively day, with plenty of interaction, as we search for a better research culture. The conference is free and lunch is provided. Register here.

In conversation: Professor Mary Ryan and Dr Stephen Webster on ‘research culture’

Professor Mary Ryan (Vice-Provost Research and Enterprise) and Dr Stephen Webster (Director of The Good Science Project) in conversation on ‘research culture’…

Stephen Webster: Why do you think research culture is rising up the agenda at British universities?

Mary Ryan: Two reasons. Firstly, we have finally found our voice and are saying that things need to change! But there is also a recognition that we face huge societal challenges that need to be addressed. We need good people from a whole range of backgrounds working on these problems in an inclusive organisation – ideally together!

If we think about EDI it is quite easy to talk about policy, legislation and frameworks. These have a role but I think other factors are more important. For example, we should keep exploring, and reminding ourselves, of the key moral arguments that urge equality of opportunity and equality. So here is an ‘ought’ that should guide us. But apart from the moral argument, we know as scientists (and there is lots of evidence), that diverse teams deliver better outcomes.  If we really care about having the most impact then the best teams will also be the most cognitively diverse teams.

So how do we get there?  Everyone in a team needs to feel respected, valued, and able to develop their authentic self. That’s how I see my job. I’m here to create a positive research environment at the heart of Imperial College, so that its research and its enterprise achieve the best it can for the benefit of society.

SW: Every institution is different. What are the particular challenges and opportunities for Imperial, as regards research culture?

MR: Imperial is an amazing place – it is full of people who are brilliant at what they do and driven to make a difference.  This gives us a head start as we are all working to a common purpose with (hopefully) a shared set of values and goals. We are unusual too in our emphasis on STEMB. That’s our ‘flavour’: we are a remarkable community that cares about evidence and hard-won data.  This emphasis on progress gives me hope that we will continue to improve the research environment to deliver better outcomes.

There are of course challenges. In our core disciplines many demographics are historically under-represented and we need to work hard to increase the diversity of our staff and student population. We need to be more open to challenging the ‘way of doing’ and accept that as our community changes we should look to be more open and inclusive, better at valuing differences and the benefits that difference brings. We need to value team-based working, not simply applaud the ‘individual genius’ (individual genii still welcome!)

I often hear that our focus on ‘excellence’ is unhelpful; I disagree, but I see we need to be careful how we define and measure the work that is carried out here, reflecting our interest in impact and quality, and not being swayed by volume and external metrics. We need to support people so that they deliver their best. This is the goal of our strategy for inclusive excellence. In fact that is what I mean by ‘excellence’. Excellence is not some agreed standard, or the mark of the ‘winner’. For me, simply, it is people delivering their best. I know we still have some behaviours that are not appropriate, and these need to be dealt with and become the unacceptable exception. I know that the faculty and department leadership are all working hard to make this the case.

SW: With research culture, there is a sense in which responsibility lies both with the individual and the institution. How do you see the balance?

MR: I do believe every individual is responsible for their own ethics and their own actions. But the institution needs to provide the right education, training, frameworks and structures that set expectations of behaviour and align benefits that incentivise that behaviour (and actively discourage individuals that create non-inclusive environments). All this relates to everything we do and it touches everything: from apparently routine day-to-day interactions, to the ethics of how teams organise authorship ethics, to the way we make sure we think about the impact of our work in different sectors and communities.

All this will depend on more than decisions and programmes: we need to talk openly about culture and ethics in the broadest sense and to challenge each other in a constructive way (which is why I am so happy that we are doing this work!). It’s not easy, exposing and looking at these questions but we know we must do this work. This way we can better understand the challenges both within the institution and in the wider community.

SW: When I attended your inaugural lecture to mark your appointment as the Armourers and Brasiers’ Chair for Materials Science, I noticed you discussed at length your experiments and your laboratory work. You really conveyed a sense of enthusiasm! What is it you like about life in the laboratory?

MR: I can go on at length about how brilliant it is to be in the lab. It’s something I rarely get to do nowadays so I live vicariously through my research group. There is something quite magical about starting with a hypothesis and finding out if you’re right! I work a lot with nanoscale materials – phenomena invisible to the human eye even though their effects happen at the macroscale. I’m still in awe of the fact that we can image down to atoms and see fundamental physics and chemistry in action. I also have spent far too many nights at synchrotrons: 24/7 experiments bring a different perspective to teamwork (sleep deprivation means you get to know people really well!). And the sheer engineering magnificence that delivers a beam of monochromated X-rays at 20 nm focus never ceases to amaze me.

The other thing that I love is learning how to do something ‘hands-on’ from others who have spent time perfecting their craft (and it often is a craft!). Things you would never work out yourself because you wouldn’t think like that.  Oh – and the added impact of knowing you’re the first (well, now second) person to see this!

And now I’ve got some questions for you…!

MR: When we first discussed a project on research culture, we agreed that this was ‘an ethical issue’. What is the link between research culture and ethics?

SW: Ethics is about the difference between right and wrong, how we know that difference, and why we might disagree about the direction we take. The word ‘good’ is interesting in relation to science, because it so obviously points to a possible tension. We might see an example of science as ‘good’ because of some technical virtuosity, or because, for example, it promises some much-sought solution. But it easy to see also that ‘good science’ has a broader meaning, to do with the general attitude of the scientific effort. ‘Good science’ might be to do with care of others, or perhaps a disinclination to aggressive ambition. It might be to do with the attentiveness a scientist brings to their daily, ordinary and unsung work. It might include some reticence over the rush to publish; it might include some generosity of attitude to students. It might well include a glorious accelerative moment too, a moment of ‘excellence’. It is in this sense that ethics in science moves beyond concerns over the future implications of an innovation (CRISPR, for example, or AI), or over which rules to follow (with vivisection, for example). Instead, ‘good science’ concerns our daily, ordinary practice as we go about our laboratory life: the intimate and the hidden rather than the extraordinary and the triumphant. The Good Science Project asks: how can a place like Imperial College, an institution with so many pressures, and where the stakes are so high, support best the ordinary, daily ‘internal goods’ of science?

MR: You are organising a series of lunchtime discussion events, the Friday Forums, open to all. What is their purpose? How do they help us understand research culture?

SW: When I asked you why interest in research culture has been rising up the agenda, you answered very persuasively. You said we are aware now that we must make the scientific mindset much broader – in a sense more welcoming. As you say, better science will be the result, and this surely is the motive behind EDI policies in a place like Imperial. I would add too that for many scientists the search for a link between their work and social justice, and between their work and sustainability, is becoming more pressing. You could say they are developing their ‘outward gaze’. That might have implications for research culture. Perhaps that is one reason why public engagement is taken so seriously by the College: we know that scientists see engagement with a lay audience as part of their professional identity. And other matters too might be feeding into an anxiety about research culture. Everywhere in the university sector there are worries about job security, career progression, remuneration, workload, and, judging by the headlines right now, the university financial model in its entirety. A host of issues, and surely too many to be easily resolved!

The Friday Forums are really a recognition that we must debate these issues as colleagues, openly and judiciously, just as much as we look to College leaders to propose solutions. As for the ‘internal goods’ – those ordinary but important moments of care and generosity – well,  if we don’t talk about them, it will be harder to notice them, encourage them, and celebrate them. So the first Friday Forum, which was fascinating and moving, concerned the role of technicians in the Imperial ecosystem.  For technicians, in their daily care for experiments and for people, are a source of constancy in a hectic and reactive environment. And constancy, as embodied by our technicians, is important to ‘good science’, and possesses therefore ethical significance.

MR: And what is the purpose of September’s ‘Day of Doubt’?

SW: It is an unusual title for an Imperial conference! But I have yet to meet a scientist, engineer, mathematician or business scholar who doesn’t understand immediately the force of the term. For there is something about our life at Imperial – whatever the field of work – that is shaped by unknowing, uncertainty, and doubt. It really is the nature of science: we use our senses and we use our instruments but we cannot read nature directly. Even if we like to think we are getting closer to the truth always, a moment’s reflection tells us that, at least in relation to the true map of nature, our knowledge is extremely fragile. But there is much more to scientific doubt than this particular philosophical heartache. Honest scientists sometimes have doubts about their work: its technical progress, its significance, its societal value, its professional esteem. These existential doubts are always there, and rarely discussed. The problem partly is that with 400 years of staggering success, modern science seems entitled to preen its feathers. There was that phrase of C.P. Snow, in his Two Cultures lectures, where he said that scientists ‘have the future in their bones’. And when he grumbled about traditional literary culture, his beef was that people like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence were gloomy to their socks.

The Day of Doubt won’t be gloomy. Rather the opposite. It will be an unusual exploration of the way that the critical questions applied to our work, the doubts about what we do, and the disappointments and frustrations of laboratory life, are all part of good science. Rather than being signs of failure, they are better seen as a resource and the route to eventual success.  But for that vision to be possible, you need a supportive, ‘sheltering’, research culture. It’s great then that the conference will have as its first session a conversation between our provost, Professor Ian Walmsley, and the CEO of the Crick Institute, Sir Paul Nurse. Between them they know a lot about what makes science tick, and why sometimes the clock stops. Others, working in science, in the arts, and in policy, will help us think about these matters, so that we can make better creative use of the gaps and pauses that underpin the scientific effort. The day will have great input from people who think a lot about these things. And because, really, that is all of us, the Day of Doubt will involve huge amounts of discussion. See you there!

Why Imperial needs technicians

Our first Friday Forum has been and gone. The topic, on the role of technicians in the life of a science institution, proved a perfect start. The Good Science Project takes as its central concern the daily practice of science, and the way science depends not on fame but on a million small encounters. If I’m right about that, then our technicians are the guardians of Imperial.

60 technicians and laboratory managers crowded into the Council Room. There was not an instrument, reagent or sensor in sight. Instead we sat under the gaze of the portraits of Imperial’s past provosts, big success stories in the progress of science. The place seemed solemn, contemplative. When the clock reached 1pm, and everyone had taken their seats, I felt it necessary to slowly close the heavy doors. The mood seemed to say: this is our space now, and we can talk.

Talk about what?

Our technicians, given a short hour to discuss the vital significance of their contribution to Imperial, wasted no time in getting to the point. It is they who ‘are always there’. At the start of the day and its end, at the beginning of the week and on Friday afternoon, the technician is the grounding of all action. You might say: technicians provide the background hum of the busy laboratory. When it comes to keeping the science flowing, thank the technicians.

To frame our discussion, we started with an introduction from MSc Science Communication student Ella Miodownik. We are here to consider our work, our ordinary work, said Ella. Not the great achievements, not the future impacts on society and public health. We are here to find out about, and mark, the things that make laboratories tick. She talked of the daily rhythm of scientific work. She mentioned the exchange of ideas and expertise. Ella invited us to consider technicians not simply as people who animate the material aspects of laboratories. It is their reliability and their diligence we should notice. The very thing that can make technicians less-than-visible is also the thing that puts them centre-stage. That thing of course is constancy. What is constancy? It is a trustworthiness so steady that you are always in danger of taking it for granted. And with these points firmly in our mind, Ella introduced the panel.

Making something real of something imagined

Our first speakers were Martyn Boutelle and Florent Seichepine. It was they who built the bionanofabrication suite, within Imperial’s Deptartment of Bioengineering. Martyn, a professor in that department, talked of the capacity of technicians to listen, and to turn ideas into reality. They make something real of something imagined. They know what is possible, Martyn said. And, he added, laughing, they also know what is not possible. Martyn remembered his days as a postdoc, and the importance of the daily conversations with technicians. And he made the great point: technicians are creative and imaginative, like scientists – but they can come at things from a different angle.

Florent Seichepine described that ‘different angle’. For a start, paid as a postdoc but working as a facility manager, he can be involved in different projects. He sees the links and joins the dots. Overall, he ‘frees up researchers’ hands’. Listening to Martyn and Florent I saw with clarity the danger of seeing some great distinction between the scientist, and the technician. It was good therefore that Florent moved us into the minor key, and did us the favour of providing us with some doubts. He spoke of problems with pay scales and career progression. He asked: with the line between scientists and technicians actually very blurry, why is the institutional divide so strong?

Generosity and communication in the making of science

This theme, of science being an ensemble activity, had been on my mind already that week, following a visit to the Royal Society. I’d been helping BBC Radio Four make a programme about a new communication project of the Royal Society, a large-scale digitisation of their archive, including letters and manuscripts of articles. The Royal Society call their project The Making of Science. It is worth a look. Both with the radio programme we made, and through this Friday Forum at Imperial, I was observing something I’ve taught my students: that it is the communication ‘within’ science that drives things forward, not just the facts. Communication between colleagues must always be cherished. That means giving it time. I saw in the Royal Society archive plenty of generosity and care for others. It is an important inheritance we need to hold onto. Probably generosity is something quite fragile, endangered by hyper-competitiveness and aggressive ambition. That is why these days we talk so much about research culture.

Our next panelist, Kat Harris, built on this theme of generosity and its central contribution to good science. She spoke of her work as a teaching technician in the Department of Chemistry. Her job is to take the chunk of curriculum that underlies an undergraduate practical class, and make of it an exercise. Kat is the person who gives the stressed-out academic some extra confidence. And she is the first port-of-call for the baffled student who finds themselves at sea. It was a surprise therefore to hear that the education qualifications extended to Imperial’s academics are denied to the technicians who do so much for our students.

‘The glue in the team’

It was no surprise, however, when we moved into a Q and A with the audience, to listen to stories of the technician as custodian of ‘the human touch’. They are the reliable presence, the steady hand – storehouses of useful know-how and valuable institutional memory. As one attendee put it: ‘We are the emotional support’.

The hour coming to an end we heard from our last panelist, Javiera Lopez Salinas. She is a postdoc, a lab manager and, as became clear, a community-builder. Were science simply an a gathering of knowledge, through the objective gaze and the denial of self, what need could there be for a ‘community-builder’? Javiera made the answer plain. ‘I am like the glue in the team’, she said. Her ‘many small decisions’ are a constant stream of communication. Her ability to be a link between the PI and the students makes life better for everyone. Keenly observant and happy to talk, Javiera is also a person who maintains links with other laboratories. And once again we felt the virtue of constancy, of ‘continually being there’.

There was more to say but the hour was up. It was time to return to our labs and our computers, and to the life of science.  The doors opened. Watched still by the provosts we went back to work.

Find out more about The Good Science Project.

The purpose of The Good Science Project

The Good Science Project began in earnest last week when we hosted our first Friday Forum – on the relations between technicians and scientists. Wait a minute – Friday Forums? I’ll go back a bit…

There is a new phrase about the place, at Imperial, and elsewhere: ‘research culture’. It’s not a concept that is easy to define. Searching for that definition, a good place to start would be 2005, when some high-profile cases of misconduct received much publicity. The ethical violations of Woo Suk Hwang, in relation to stem cell research, were under scrutiny. It was also in 2005 that Andrew Wakefield’s work on the MMR began to unravel. This was a period when the phrase, ‘scientific misconduct’, seemed to be gaining currency. Unsettling stories from previous decades were in circulation again. Examples would be the David Baltimore case of the 1990s, and of course the story of discovery of the structure of DNA, from the 1950s. The Committee on Publication Ethics, set up by editors to help them deal with these issues, had 90 members in 1997. By 2005 membership had grown to 350.

‘Bad’ scientists

Roughly speaking, at the start of the millennium something changed. Before that, it was easy to interpret the stories as matters of individual psychology. Someone was a ‘bad’ scientist, it was said. Perhaps someone was too ambitious, or too insecure, or just too sloppy. But what about the role of the institution?

At that time I was teaching a workshop titled ‘Science, Research and Integrity’, in Imperial’s recently inaugurated Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine. Attendees were first year PhD students and my course was amongst a list of compulsory modules. No one much discussed with me what this workshop should be about. I guessed that my job was to discuss misconduct: what’s wrong with plagiarism? Why is it bad to make up your results, or tidy them up? Perhaps I was to be a policeman: tell the students the difference between right and wrong.

I decided to start the first session with a ‘warm-up’ activity. It was Clare Matterson, then head of public engagement at Wellcome, who suggested I put the students in pairs. Ask them to discuss, and then report on, ‘one good thing, and one bad thing, that has happened to me in science’.

As these were first year PhD students, you might have thought them to be inexperienced in the ways of science. Mistake. Already these students knew exactly how things stood. Very reliant on the apprentice-master relation, their eyes were open. When bad things happened, the students described themselves as bystanders, watching powerful forces play around them, sometimes to their cost. It was from these students that I learned about coercive arrangements over authorship, neglect in terms of training, forced secrecy at conferences, and generally strained communication.

The students were expressive and articulate too on the good things of science: discovery, the pleasure of craft, and a sense of helping. Overall, though, I came away from these sessions (I ran them for five years) noting the vulnerability of the students to patchy care afforded by the PhD structure, and noting also their heroic commitment to their work. A mix of good and bad.

Talking culture, not misconduct

20 years on, the talk is of culture, not misconduct. Phrases like ‘enhancing research culture’ or ‘positive research culture’ are common currency in universities now. It is said the next REF will emphasise the issue.

To make sure these welcome developments are not simply bureaucratic fixes, many different voices need to be heard. We need to step back, even for a short hour, to reflect on the nature of our work, and its inherent good practice. What we like about it, and what we don’t. This is the purpose of The Good Science Project.

By Stephen Webster

15 May 2023