The Magic Of Science: Where Did It Go?

How do we win back disillusioned scientists who have transitioned from the starry eyed to the practical? Dr. Laasya Samhita of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore writes.

AsianScientist (Sep. 23, 2013) – Many science undergraduates dream of winning the Nobel Prize. PhD students, however, dream of getting a clone or converging a simulation, or perhaps today, of scooping competitors.

This difference in ambition is not merely a transition from the starry eyed to the practical, but a reflection of something deeper, a loss of a sense of magic. Students as diverse as Bertie Bott’s every flavor beans are taken into PhD programs. Mix well and condition for five years under an unrelenting competitive atmosphere, and they emerge as specialized agents, as wary of sharing new knowledge as a Gringotts goblin.

What is responsible for this? In my view, competition and specialization. Specialization taken to an extreme has become an accepted way of doing science. The number of academic job positions are increasingly fewer than the number of PhDs being trained yearly, putting both students and post docs under pressure to generate more data. Laboratories work on a tiny detail of a problem, often communicating only with other labs also engaged in the same sub-field and, therefore, conveying their findings to only a select and already primed audience.

I did a cursory search on the Pubmed website to see how many paper titles I as a trained biologist could understand. The very first one stumped me: A Role of Kindlin-3 in Integrin αMβ2 Outside-In Signaling and the Syk-Vav1-Rac1/Cdc42Signaling Axis. The emphasis on publishing as many papers as possible and the increasing demands on the amount of work required to publish each paper mean that professors hiring new post docs routinely ask for people with prior experience in the field: they do not want to waste time training ‘inexperienced’ scientists.

The fall-outs of this are many: increased stress, increased reports of data manipulation, and a gradual stifling of the happiness and creative freedom that people who opt to do science hope for. This corporate outlook that has seeped into doing science (without corporate-style pay) means that every aspiring scientist is busy trying to do experiments before his competitors do them and then preparing the results in a manner likely to please the reviewers of specific journals. There is little time or inclination left to think outside one’s own area of sub-specialization, let alone indulge in hobbies, traditionally supposed to stimulate creativity.

As an undergraduate I attended a series of science lectures at a summer camp, and was thrilled by a talk about how microbes sense their environment. I remember a colleague asking the speaker afterwards: “If I join your lab, can I find out how they move?” The answer was a prompt “Maybe, but you must work hard.” The answer struck me as chilling, on hindsight perhaps unfairly so coming from a speaker tired after a long talk. But it was an abrupt bump down to earth from the magic of the visuals in the talk.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to talk of a Leeuwenhoek (a janitor) or a Spallanzani (a priest who did experiments in his spare time) who did all their work in a world where science was not yet institutionalized. The survivors of our system certainly include a subset of people who manage to work creatively and enjoy the process, but what about those we have left behind? Have we forced other leisurely and creative Spallanzanis to fall behind simply because our current system of science does not cater to them?

Can we estimate the loss incurred to creative science? Certainly, institutes would be hard put to departmentalize Louis Pasteur. Very likely he would be refused funding for jumping so skittishly from the stereochemistry of tartarates to disproving spontaneous generation, and from wine-making to silkworms.

Perhaps all we need is a change in the way we view science. The question remains, can we bring back the wonder?


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Dave Catchpole/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Laasya Samhita received a PhD in molecular biology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore for her work on bacterial protein synthesis. She looks for an evolutionary slant on most biology stories and is currently freelancing as a science journalist and writer before taking the traditional next step of a postdoc. She is particularly fond of detective fiction and travel and blogs at (scientific) and (general).

Related Stories from Asian Scientist