Month: June 2023

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.