Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse (NOT pictured, left) is a case in point. He said during the interview that he didn’t remember taking drugs in 40 years of research (carefully put!), but he is still a self-confessed “risk-taker”. Nurse rides motorcycles, flies planes and describes himself as an “adventurer” type of scientist.
My concern is that this kind of personality will be an endangered species in science if we don’t tackle the issue of the socialised, extrovert children dropping science subjects as soon as they get the chance.
How do we do that? Certainly not by making out that science is only done by dull people with no ambition.
Is it wrong to tell children that David Pritchard lets hookworms burrow into his skin in order to research allergies? That Barry Marshall drank a beakerful of bacteria to prove a point about stomach ulcers? That Francis Crick was so desperate to be first to discover the structure of DNA that he stole data from his colleagues?
Should we be worried they will go away and play copycat? I seriously doubt it.
I probably would stop short of telling primary school students about the role of LSD in some people’s creative thinking (even though Steve Jobs, the creator of their iPods, says taking LSD is one of the most important things he ever did in his life). But I’m not averse to telling my kids that scientists are more impressive – and do wilder and much more rock and roll things – than the pop stars or sports stars they consider so cool. I want them to know that science is not the exclusive property of the socially inept.
We need to create a society where science is valued as more than something that delivers new technology. That’s not going to happen while scientists perpetuate the myth that they are just humble servants who carry out careful, logical, methodical experiments then faithfully report the results while remaining objective and dispassionate. Does anyone really think that’s the way to get people to fall in love with science? I don’t, for two reasons.
First, it doesn’t ring true (for good reason: it isn’t) and so makes people sceptical – their guard goes up. Second, because it makes people see science as nothing more than a service they have paid for. That way, science (and technology) becomes something people take for granted, like dustbin-emptying or supermarket shelf-stacking. Do I have to point out that these are not careers that most children aspire to?
I’m not here to tell science teachers how to do their job (my wife teaches science, and I wouldn’t survive long if I did that). I’m just suggesting that when we talk about science, we don’t have to pretend it’s a purely rational, logical, carefully methodical process. Like any creative process, it has its moments of anarchy as well as its months and years of arduous toil.
Get that right, and we could then teach students that if they learn to use the tools of science well, they might be able to spend their lives paid to express their own creative urges through scientific discovery.
By that time, they’ll be able to choose for themselves whether taking drugs would help.
That drugs study is here, by the way.