Briefing note for Friday Forum No. 5

Friday Forum May 17 Briefing Note

What do undergraduate education and science research have in common?

The Good Science Project, which organises The Friday Forums, exists to promote debate and development in research culture, here at Imperial College. What is meant by ‘research culture’? Certainly this is a large and amorphous concept. It relates to how scientists work. It is in particular interested in the social and personal factors that are so important in the ‘life scientific’. These factors include intellectual autonomy, the importance of trust between colleagues, the stresses of career security, publication and funding, the pace at which we work, the pleasures of slowly building expertise, the costs of set back and failure, and much else besides.

Today’s discussion

Our main aim in the May 17th Friday Forum is to explore the links between UG education and research culture. Quite often in universities research and education become somewhat separate. We should always aim to challenge that division. Tomorrow’s scientists are drawn from today’s undergraduates. Further, for the majority of UGs who do not go to work in universities, an authentic understanding of scientific culture will be an important part of their CV.

To make clearer the link between UG education and research we frame our discussion around sustainability. Sustainability is of course an important aspect of environmental concern. But it has a wider meaning that makes it relevant both to the life of an undergraduate and to the life of a scientist.  In this wider meaning, something that is sustainable can endure and flourish with no risk of long-term damage to the individual, to the institution, or to the environment.

To see how we can encourage sustainability in both education and in scientific research we will focus on five areas of interest:


Both as students and as scientists, we want to be able to use our imagination. In one way of telling the history of science, our great scientific heroes are often pictured as people of imagination: Einstein with the beam of light he imagined riding upon; Kekulé and his ring of fire that became the benzene ring. But more ordinarily, any scientific observation requires imagination – admittedly an imagination that is mixed in with reason. Science always involves ‘the making of meaning’, a concept not quite captured by a word more commonly used about science, ‘discovery’. For example, how is it that two scientists, looking at the same set of data, can reach completely different conclusions? And when a science student is captivated by something they are learning, is it not their imagination that has been fired? Here is a concluding question: if imagination is central to science research and to science learning, how do we ensure that students and scientists have space and time for the imagination to flourish?


For a long time after Sir Francis Bacon founded modern science in the 17th century, science was considered to be ‘one thing with one method’. We know this as ‘the Enlightenment view’. But today the philosophy of science leads us to doubt the monist view of science. Rather, we sense that Inclusivity – the ability of different groups  to access science as a profession, and science as a body of knowledge, itself enriches science. A many-headed science will be better at finding the way.  We might say: the scientific imagination, is enriched by difference. And the resulting truths may be more relevant to more people. But we ask: how good is the laboratory, or the classroom, at encouraging ‘different views’?


Perhaps when we collaborate – work together – our imagination is enhanced. Suddenly we are ‘thinking jointly’.  Collaboration, whether in the classroom or the laboratory, is much more than the sharing of equipment. It is guessing together, developing ideas together, working together. But for this to happen you need trust and you need time. When we organise collaborative work for students, do we allow enough time? And what are the challenges in making a collaboration successful?


It is often said that good ideas occur at boundaries, at the interface between disciplines. All scientists, and all science students, are aware of the costs of specialisation, of narrowing. But how easy is it, in the classroom or in the laboratory, to traverse disciplinary divides? Are we honest about the difficulties? Both for students and for scientists, are there risks to being interdisciplinary?

Assessment and evaluation

All through this Friday Forum we focus on the themes above. But something big is missing: the question of our success. We want to know we are doing well: we enjoy the approval of our teachers, our peers, the leaders in our field. What are the problems of assessment however? Can it get in the way of learning, or of scientific innovation? Scientists know all about the pressure to publish, and students know that assessment can somehow miss the point. Do students have examples or assessment that enriches learning, and aids collaboration and the imaginative spirit? And do scientists know of ways their work can be followed and appreciated in ways that remain supportive and fruitful?

Dr Stephen Webster

Senior Lecturer in Science Communication

Office of the Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise)/Science Communication Unit

May 17th 2024