Chances are that if you are a human being that has survived the lingering festive period you will be either patting your back after coming up with a remarkably-self-embettering-yet-very-much-achievable brief list of New Year’s Resolutions, or struggling to stick to them. You are not alone.
Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that you have resolved to read more this year. Let us assume, just because it is a New Year’s Resolution, that you want this reading to be meaningful, to teach you something. Let us assume, just follow me on this one, that you want 10 long reads to make you think. What a marvellous coincidence, my digital friend! For I was just thinking of writing *precisely* about that.
[Full disclosure: if patience is neither your forte nor an item in your list of resolutions, you can find the links to the reads at the end of the article.]
On curiosity, freedom, and ignorance: the pillars of science
Let me begin by posing a question you might have asked yourself or may have been asked by someone you know: “What is basic research useful for“? To which I will answer with a quote from Abraham Flexner‘s essay on “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge“: “Throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity“. In other words, basic research doesn’t need to be useful immediately, but it might change the world anyway. Although written in 1939, this essay by the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton remarkably resonates with current days, and contains numerous examples advocating for the abolition of the term “use” so that we can strike “the shackles off the human mind“.
If we agree on curiosity being one of the central pillars of science, I would argue that freedom is an equally important one. And these two usually go hand in hand. Have you ever used a microscope to capture an image from an experiment? Then you have probably used Fiji/ImageJ to process it. What if I told you that Fiji came to be because a PhD student had the time to freely learn to program and start creating tools to fulfil his image processing needs? Or, in his own words, “Would you have predicted that funding a mostly clueless PhD student to research planarian embryonic development would have led to the creation of software that enabled thousands of labs worldwide to perform complex image processing and analysis?”. Well, that is exactly what happened. That software started what now keeps growing and evolving as Fiji. And that PhD student was Albert Cardona, now a Group Leader at Janelia Research Campus, and you can read his thoughts on “The unintended consequences of funding untimely research“ here. You can also read (and cite, should you use the software) the Fiji paper in Nature Methods.
Equally important than curiosity, and perhaps what drives it, is ignorance. In this essay by Martin Schwartz and this TED Talk by Stuart Firestein, both scientists discuss how ignorance drives research, and how science makes us feel stupid or clueless (although not in a pejorative way) a great deal of times. However, that should not discourage us. Science is hard, and as Schwartz puts it, “what makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result”. And I would argue that this is the reason why science is so much fun. After all, as Firestein says in his TED talk, “in science, knowing a lot of stuff is not the point. Knowing a lot of stuff is there to help you get to more ignorance”.
On the publishing business, reproducibility of results, gender bias, and misdirected competition: is science broken?
As with anything else, there is also a dark side of science. Some problems arise from the difficulty of science itself. Some issues should’ve been fixed a long time ago. Some others don’t make sense at all. Like the science publishing business. In this long read in The Guardian, Stephen Buranyi explains how this industry works and how it came to be, a system that has garnered so much influence that it can dictate how public money is allocated (to get this grant, you must have a publication in this or that journal). And he sums it up very succinctly in this analogy: “it is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill”. Fortunately, more and more initiatives and funding bodies are favouring open access, and the drawing of ideas from other fields like machine learning (see this post on “An Efficient Journal“) as well as the blooming of projects like bioArxiv are proving to be immensely beneficial for the scientific community.
Other problems, like the difficulty of replicating published experiments around the globe, arise from the difficulty of science itself. Sometimes getting different results might be down to minute things we don’t even pay attention to, such as isolating your cells by “vigorous stirring” instead of “prolonged gentle rocking“. In their commentary in Nature, “A long journey to reproducible results“, Gordon J. Lithgow, Monica Driscoll and Patrick Phillips share their account on how they went about to try to get to the bottom of the lack of replicability in some experiments on C. elegans’ life span. Coordination and precisely following the exact same methods are crucial to this endeavour, and recent initiatives such as the International Brain Laboratory are being created with that purpose in mind.
Finally, there is a big problem of gender and minorities discrimination in science, especially as one progresses through the academic ladder. Not to speak about the inherent difficulties of actually progressing through the academic ladder. The late Ben A. Barres touched upon both topics in these two essays in Nature: “Does gender matter?” and “Stop blocking postdocs’ paths to success“. I deeply encourage you to read both texts and critically think about both subjects. Take action, speak out, debate about these topics. Change needs to happen, and it won’t come from above, it must come from each of us. And today is as good day as any to start this change.
As we have seen, there are problems in science and in the way the “system” works. It is therefore important that we acknowledge them and make an effort to be conscious about these issues so that we can continue to improve. After all, as Christie Aschwanden puts it in her amazing essay in FiveThirtyEight, Science isn’t broken: “The scientific method is the most rigorous path to knowledge, but it’s also messy and tough. Science deserves respect exactly because it is difficult — not because it gets everything correct on the first try. The uncertainty inherent in science doesn’t mean that we can’t use it to make important policies or decisions. It just means that we should remain cautious and adopt a mindset that’s open to changing course if new data arises”. Why not, then, apply science to science itself?
Reaching out: the spark that will light the fire?
I would like to finish with three texts that in my opinion illustrate the importance and beauty of writing about science for everyone, and how this can help us reach out to people that otherwise wouldn’t be in touch with science and bring to them exciting stories about the journey to scientific discovery, delicate topics such as animal experimentation, and wonderful essays on the life and work of influential scientists.
In this thrilling piece in The Node, “Discovery through collaboration“, Shannon Shibata-Germanos reflects on the journey that brought her and an amazing team of scientists to collaborate to figure out the identity and function of a new type of brain lymphatic endothelial cells, a discovery that surfaced in three simultaneous and complementary papers by three different teams of scientists. A brilliantly written window into the “the more personal aspects of the craft of discovery“, and one that hooks you up and makes you want to know what the next discovery will be. I wish more authors took the time to share their story with the world.
It is not very common to come across articles treating controversial topics like animal experimentation. In this article, titled “People ask about my experiments on mice. The answers are… complicated“, Ashley Juavinett manages to bring the topic to the spotlight in a very open and natural way. Pieces like this one are key to make the scientific life less opaque, and bring our work closer to the society.
The last piece I wanted to share is “The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic” by Amanda Gefter in Nautilus. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to summarise it as brilliantly as Ed Boyden did in a tweet, so I will limit myself to sharing his tweet:
I hope that, if you have read this far, you will have come across with one or two interesting texts that have made you reflect on a particular topic and, who knows, maybe learn something new or change your mindset about something. If that is the case, talk about it, share it with someone, spread the message!
Alternatively, if you were scrolling down looking for the list of links, congratulations, you are just one scroll away from it!
For list-lovers like me (in order of appearance):
- The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, by Abraham Flexner (1939) [link]
- The unintended consequences of funding untimely research, by Albert Cardona (2016) [link]
- a) The importance of stupidity in scientific research, by Martin Schwartz in the Journal of Cell Science (2008) [link]
b) The pursuit of ignorance, TED Talk by Stuart Firestein [link]
- Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? by Stephen Buranyi in The Guardian (2017) [link]
- a) Does gender matter? by Ben A. Barres in Nature (2006) [link]
b) Stop blocking postdocs’ paths to success, by Ben A. Barres in Nature (2017) [link]
- A long journey to reproducible results, by Gordon J. Lithgow, Monica Driscoll & Patrick Phillips in Nature (2017) [link]
- Science Isn’t Broken, by Christie Aschwanden in FiveThirthyEight (2015) [link]
- Discovery Through Collaboration: Brain Lymphatic Endothelial Cells, by Shannon Shibata-Germanos and Max van Lessen in The Node (2017) [link]
- People ask about my experiments on mice. The answers are … complicated, by Ashley Juavinett in Massive (2017) [link]
- The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic, by Amanda Gefter in Nautilus (2015) [link]