Category: Research Culture

Triptych of Science Blog: Embracing all forms

On 3 May, we hosted the first arts workshop for the Triptych of Science arts initiative, which brings together people working in scientific research culture to create art about their experiences in science at Imperial. The idea of the ‘Tryptich’, a tripartite art piece, is to explore three themes that might not be involved in the typical narratives of research culture, but that tend to surface in any conversation with people working in research: Time, Emotion and Balance.

As the curator in residence, I was tasked with thinking about building an exhibition, the “end-product” of this project. Yet I found myself observing what happens when researchers come together to make art, fascinated by watching the process unfold. If I had to choose one word to describe what this workshop was about, for me, it would be ‘forms’.

As people trickled into the room, they were greeted not by the typical set of classroom tables, but by a single large one formed of several pushed together. On this banquet table was a feast of art materials: string, paper, clay, glue, thread, ink. And of course, some plastic covers to anticipate (and encourage) mess.

3D printing, Fashion, Graphic design, Handcrafts, Interactive art, Marbling, Miniature, Music, Painting in glass, Presentation slides, Sculpture, Sewing, Storytelling, Writing
Scribblings from Mikayla’s notebook

Once everyone found their seats, introductions began: we shared our occupations, research or professional focus, and perhaps most importantly, any experience with art. To my surprise, there was hardly any repetition; almost everyone mentioned a different creative form.




Some participants brought in examples of things they had made: the yellow jacket they were wearing, a cute fluffy dog, an egg of glass filled with purple swirls; paper marbling in bright cellular shapes; an exquisite miniature landscape, featuring a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit nestled among tiny rocks and flowers. We also heard about many examples of participants combining science and art, for instance, a piece of music encoded in DNA, with simulated evolution to mutate the melody over time.

Discussions of science became quite detailed, but these cheerful chats about genetics and material science seemed different around a multidisciplinary table than they might within a laboratory. The knowledge exchange was more social than goal-oriented – not done to build an argument or make conclusions, but simply to share without judgement. This became clear when someone expressed hesitancy about being entirely new to art making. The others soon reassured them that the experience they bring is just as valuable in the context of this project, as a collective initiative of learning and unlearning, art making and thinking about research culture.

A theme emerged that we should not focus simply on making the final product for the installation, but that we should also display evidence of the process. We decided to keep an archive of drafts, notes, sketches, and reflections as equally important to the final art piece.

Then, our artist-in-residence, Ella Miodownik, facilitated the main activity of the day: to make ‘bad’ art. The word ‘bad’ was used to encourage a letting go of judgement and end-products; to not focus on trying to make something good, but just to play around and enjoy the making process. Each person was directed to take a piece of paper and do something to it for five minutes – to manipulate it in some way, whether cutting, folding, or ripping. Drawing or writing was implicitly discouraged due to a lack of any writing utensils on the table – but our own project leader, Stephen Webster, broke this rule, procuring a biro from his pocket and composing a short poem, hidden in a fold of his paper.

Stephen's poem hidden in his craftwork, reads: Classroom on a cold spring day. String, glue, scissors, papers. Light glimmers below the waves.
Stephen’s hidden poem

The craft session therefore began with the very important and serious process of picking out one’s favourite colours of paper and soon, everyone was immersed in making. People were sneaking peeks of what others were doing out of pure curiosity, but were mostly dedicated to their own ideas. And so began a period of comfortable silence, interrupted only by quiet requests to pass the scissors.

Somehow the five minutes I had planned for the activity turned into an hour, with all of us quietly absorbed in art-making – even Mikayla scribbling away and Madisson filming the process were totally immersed in their own quiet practice. It felt like a reversion to childhood and was supremely calming to my nervous system. Being together, and making-with… I think we might have accidentally done some kind of art therapy. (Ella)

Once again, no two forms were the same. Some chose to let their paper remain flattened and experiment with embroidery, cutting and weaving; others created shapes, structures and texture out of the paper. We even explored interactivity – one participant ripped and folded their paper into a perfect cone, before allowing the audience (which was just us, for now!) to unfold the piece in a performance artwork. Ella appealed to my curatorial perspective by hanging her piece from the ceiling, showing how the concept of ‘all forms’ is not just about the piece of work, but also about how the work is displayed. People gradually started to stand up, walk around and talk about each other’s art. Small and sweet conversations were humming in the room.

There was an interesting conversation about handcraft, where we discussed how distinctions between what is considered ‘fine art’ and ‘arts and crafts’ often correlate with hierarchies of gender and class. We resolved that this project would reject this distinction, embrace all forms of art as equal, and celebrate undervalued art forms such as textile.

Ella's illustration of what a multimedia quilt would look like on the white board. Different parts scattering around and linked with strings
The multimedia ‘quilt’

This led nicely to Ella’s announcement of what our final art form would be: A multimedia quilt!

What is a quilt? In a sense, it is a constraint, but one that allows for creativity. It is made up of units, or quilt squares, but each one is different. This gives us options: We could each make our own quilt square, collaborate with someone on a square, or make a square all together. Then we can bring it all together at the end. This way, we can participate in a mix of co-creation and individual or asynchronous working. (Ella)


Participants discussed the idea of creating a collective piece where they could still have the capacity to be imaginative and create their own works. Ideas started to bloom: using materials from the lab, integrating journals and other aspects of daily scientific life, mapping and graphing out emotions or time spent doing science, and how they might want people who come to see the exhibition to engage with the quilt.

All of it will contribute to the multidimensional quilt – paper, string, marbling, clay, writing, video, data collection, narrative, performance. The focus on process, co-creation, multiple media – moving forward these ideas will be central to the project. The ideas of our Tryptich of time, emotion, and balance, will still be simmering there, directly relevant to some quilt “squares’ and more tangential to others. (Ella)

Although some people slowly began to leave and return to the hustle and bustle of their lives, conversations ranging from handcraft to chemistry lingered in the room for another hour. One of our participants brought their marbling materials to the session and gave a brilliant impromptu workshop on the technique, guiding us to create bright abstract prints while explaining the science of surface tension. More importantly, we started to see people making connections, comparing and exchanging their inspiration, and forming a sense of belonging as a group of artists in its early days.

It’s not too late to join the group of scientist-artists and contribute to our tryptich-quilt of research culture! The next session will be held on Wednesday 19th June 12-2pm. Reach out to Stephen Webster ( if you are interested.


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.

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