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


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