So, while a few people rail at me for glamourising drug-taking on the Today programme this morning (I didn’t - you can listen to what I did say via Tom Feilden's blog), let me just clarify and expand. I’m making the case that scientists aren’t dull, timid, introverted, risk-averse people – at least, the good ones aren’t. The ones that really push things, the Nobel Prizewinners, are risk-takers.

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.



5/7/2011 08:22:15

Sorry for commenting anonymously, but I am probably one of the 97 percent of scientists you refer to in an earlier post, who would love to enter the debate, but cannot. The reason is that I fear that my opinions, if expressed openly, would probably lead to disciplinary action being taken by my employer and would put my career at significant risk (what little there is left of it). This is perhaps another indicator of how bad things have got.

Before I start, I am surprised how few comments you have received so far; perhaps there are not so many risk taking scientists out there after all. I enjoy risky activities myself, but its strange though how I find it easier to risk my own life than my career. Maybe its the shame factor, as there is nothing to fear once dead.

You have made a point in this post that I strongly agree with, and I previously argued the case for with our head of organisation, i.e. that our approach to management was (and still is) gradually killing off the eccentrics, the risk takers and the innovators. I am afraid I did not win the argument, rather I had to terminate the discussion with unresolved differences of opinion remaining.

This loss of scientific freedom is really bad news for our national innovation and creativity; see Scientific American Mind, May/June 2011, "Unleased Mind", pp 22-29. Its especially bad news given the need to stay ahead in the knowledge race, as recently portrayed in Evan Davis' "Made in Britain" series on TV. http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn/whats-on/ou-on-the-bbc-made-britain

There are indeed scientific principles supporting the need for risk takers, as explained by Prof (Emeritus) Peter Allen. Peter had a very clever anology for why eccentricity is important, where in his terms these people are outliers. His anology was with the way that trawler crews behave. There are two types of behaviour, one is to try and exploit scale as in when fish shoals are discovered one competes with the other trawlers by fishing more intensively than the rest. The other behaviour is the outlier behaviour, where one takes the risk of discovering shoals of fish which are well way from where previous ones have been discovered. What is frequently forgotten is that the outliers are the key mechanism by which the overall system is sustained. Without the constant exploration, risk taking and discovery by outliers, the rest of the system would not continue functioning. We seem to have forgotten this important message (again) http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/p2054/People/Faculty/Emeritus-Professors/Peter-Allen

Here is another question. Why as a species are we stupid enough, despite the sophistication of our society and science to keep repeating the mistakes of the past? Why do we think that we are in a new era where previous learning from experience does not apply? There was a prime example of this in Adam Curtis' recent TV series, "All watched over by machines of loving grace", where it is claimed that Greenspan believed the cycle of boom and bust had passed due to the influence of computation in financial markets (big mistake which potentially had a significant influence on our recent financial crisis).


In this case we seem to have forgotten how important it is to sustain outliers and their risky, often non-politically and non-corporately correct behaviours. We seem to have accepted the belief that we can safely turn science into a mechanistic innovation factory for industry i.e. running it on the same systematised and orderly procedural basis as an industrial production line.

Personally I believe a key factor for this decline in scientific freedom, that you appear not to have discussed, is mangerialism. Apart from a few lone voices, no-one is willing to tear down this damaging viral idea. The few who have waged war on this virus include Robert Protherough and John Pick, with their book "Managing Britania", 2003.

There are other faint cries in the wilderness including:'I see managerialism as a virus' by Dr Douglas Cameron, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2002/apr/05/publicvoices4

I note that David Colquhoun is another who rages against managerialism in the domain of science, for example at the Oxford Skeptics in the pub on "The corruption of science: Quackery and managerialism endanger a noble enterprise", and in his blog article, "Research managers: an incubus round the neck of research", http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3120#more-3120

In my own scientific domain, I have seen the same forces of corporatism, manageralism and a strong project and research management "discipline" enforced upon us, all maskerading under the banner of making us more "professional". This started with the Quality Management bandwagon http://www.businessballs.com/qualitymanagement.htm, with its endless quality procedures and reviews and the managerial

5/7/2011 08:33:43

Sorry - forgot to include this interesting reference on managerialism in science with my last comment.


Michael Brooks
6/7/2011 08:53:49

Thanks for this - and sorry it took me so long to approve. I completely understand your need for anonymity. But if you like, do get in touch via the contact page; I'm quite interested in assembling some tales from the research lab - might be a useful resource and a chance for researchers to learn from one another's experience. I think Peter Medawar's "Advice to a Young Scientist" could use an update!


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