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Nauka emigrantka/science on the move

Nauka Emigrantka/Science on the Move

We’ve just had our last Friday Forum of the year, on The Ages of Science. Naturally this milestone made me reflect on the series as a whole, and particularly on the first event, held in February.

Our subject was Nauka Emigrantka, translated from the Polish as ‘Science on the Move’. The Polish motif comes from a Warsaw-based colleague of mine, Urszula Kaczorowska. Urszula is a long-time visitor and teacher with Imperial’s Science Communication Unit and is a science journalist at the Polish Press Agency.

Some years ago Urszula became interested in the issue of ‘migrant science’. What is it like, travelling for science? Scientists often uproot themselves to go and pursue their craft in another country. Science is always international, global. What could be more ordinary, then, in moving somewhere that offers the right opportunity? But what are the difficulties in ‘being global’, in migrating for your science? Being a journalist, Urszula sensed a good story.

In its publicity material Imperial describes itself as ‘the United Kingdon’s most international university’. UCL in turn calls itself ‘the global university’. But ‘being international’ can’t be an undiluted good. Mixed in must be joy, opportunity, peril and heart-ache.

These are big themes for the life scientific, and rather under-explored. I was interested too in the philosophical angle. It is a myth of science that it has a method, maybe one method. In that case surely science is the same everywhere. You can see the point: DNA is a double helix, whether you are in Moscow or in Malibu. But do the undoubted facts of science flatten out all difference, all geography, all sociology? Is science more a place of nowhere, rather than somewhere? It seems unlikely.

The job of the Friday Forum is to explore in congenial fashion such issues. And so we gathered one Friday lunchtime, to take stock of the matter. Naturally, three travellers took charge. Urszula herself chaired the session, and her interviewees were two perambulatory scientists, one from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the other based at Imperial but trained in India.

Dr Szymon Drobniak is an evolutionary biologist, especially interested in bird colouration. Like a migrant bird himself, he moves rather regularly between Poland, Australia and Sweden, spending good patches of time in each. Dr Dhanya Radhakrishnan works in Imperial’s Form and Function lab, and gained her PhD in India in 2021.

Urszula carefully probed our speakers’ motives for their migration, and way they feel about their radical geographical extension. Symon and Dhanya’s perspectives of course were multiple, and far from straightforward. Part of the challenge is in adapting to a new culture: Syzmon was by turns amusing and thought-provoking in comparing the Scandinavian mind-set with that of the Australian. For Dhanya, the remarkable change in opportunity and in the dynamics of research culture made Imperial almost the natural place to be. But not quite natural. She is far from home, from parents and friends, and time is passing.

It is a rule of the Friday Forums that, of the short hour available, half is given to the panel, half to the audience and a question-and-answer session. Ideas, thoughtful and challenging, flowed quickly. We discussed how, for those who have come to the UK from LMICs, the phrase ‘brain-drain’ is too much of a simplification. We talked about how migratory science, as a phenomenon, intersects in complex ways with other features of science that vary nationally. You can’t talk about migrant science without considering the gender gap, and the professional status of women. The rigidities of hierarchy, and how they shift across societies, will impact on a person’s choices when it comes to workplace. And then there is the issue of dominance of English as the lingua franca of science, and how this influences both the native, and the non-native speaker of English.

As ever, our Friday Forum produced no answers. As ever, the simple act of assembling in person, to discuss as a group some contextual issue of science, seemed both profound and easy. Led by Urszula, and with Szymon and Dhanya pondering the issues, no one wanted the discussion to end. As the next class filed into our room, and we made our exit, we soon assembled again down the stairs, in the Medical School café, to continue the discussion. Szymon I noticed, settled there too, with his enormous suitcase, all ready for Heathrow, and Australia, and another lap of his travels.

With thanks to:

Dr Szymon Drobniak, The Jagiellonian University, Krakow
Dr Dhanya Radhakrishan, Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London
Urszula Kaczorowska, Polish Press Agency, Warsaw

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

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 

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!