Let scientists be scientists

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

The job of the scientist is, first and foremost, to pursue science, not funding. Larry Marshall, the newly appointed head of CSIRO, may have started out in science, but you know he’s spent too many years in business when – in his first official communiqué – he claims that scientists have a ‘duty’ to start companies.

It would be too easy to simply list all of the lovely technologies and life-changing medical advancements basic research has given us, and ask, ‘Would you have liked to have gone without all of these?’

Instead, let’s acknowledge that industry can help fund some basic research, however an overemphasis on the commercialisation of research outcomes is fundamentally opposite to the nature and philosophy of science as a human endeavour.

Imagine a young research student in 1960s Japan. The lab head they are currently working for has assigned them the task of studying small, nocturnal jellyfish. When the jellyfish die and are crushed, they glow when exposed to water. It seems strange, perhaps even interesting, but could anyone have at that time reasonably predicted that the work of this research student would end up earning them a Nobel Prize? Osamu Shimomura, the student who did that work, could hardly have guessed so.

Shimomura helped discover aequorin and green fluorescent protein, which are what made the jellyfish he was studying glow. Isolating the genetic codes for these proteins has led to their widespread use in research, giving medical researchers the ability to observe biological activity at the molecular level and allowing engineers to develop advanced biosensors, among other things.

If Shimomura had a duty to start a company, how could he have sold his jellyfish experiment to a venture capitalist?

S: I want to study these glowing jellyfish. They’re really cool.
VC: What will you discover? How much money can we make from your discovery?
S: I don’t know.

And Shimomura can’t know, nor can anyone! That’s the fundamental nature of basic research and of science generally: to discover what we don’t yet know. Sure, we can sometimes reasonably guess, but we’re only guessing and we can barely do that in most instances of basic research, such as in Shimomura’s case.

Shimomura wouldn’t have been able to get his experiments off the ground if he was told he had a duty to make the outcomes of his experiments commercialisable. He’d have to do something completely different, and ultimately something that wasn’t basic research.

Since this problem of the unknown is common for almost all of basic research, the claim that scientists ought to start companies is essentially to say that they shouldn’t pursue basic research. Do we really wish for this? If we do, the ultimate goal and purpose of science is lost to an impatient sense of utility.

I say ‘impatient sense’ because basic research forms the foundation on which all utilisations of science rely upon. Those biosensors and the incredible detail of information which medical researchers have used to develop new treatments for disease are all – in part – courtesy to a research student in 1960s Japan methodically studying some obscure, nocturnal jellyfish.

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3 thoughts on “Let scientists be scientists

  1. So I’m going to start by saying that in order to address the issues in question raised by Larry Marshall, we first need to start the conversation at a point closer to the nature and flavour of the discourse surrounding Australian science and innovation. I would suggest reading both the blog post and the comments on my blog with relation to why innovation in Australia is stagnating (http://wp.me/p2nU4o-6s), as this response is simply an extension of my fundamental premise. Second, I will state upfront that I will not be addressing your blog post “directly” because I would not be generating meaningful dialogue within a 1-dimensional paradigm – you will see why below.

    My response covers of 4 major areas of thought:

    1. The 1-dimensional, value-dilutive nature of the current discussion around Australian STEM
    2. The lack of tangible thought leadership of influential STEM individuals, and within different stakeholder groups and Government
    3. A critical response of why Marshall and McFarlane’s comments can be misconstrued, but were (likely) well-intentioned, and why we are in furious agreement.
    4. A call to action to broaden the scope of discussion among your family, friends, colleagues and community, and be STEM-culturally-aware and considerate

    Today, if talk about STEM in Australia, we find that the majority of conversations revolve around “open-ended” or “industry/commercially-oriented” research. The cause of this “Us vs. Them” mentality is not because scientists are fundamentally divided about what type of science should be investigated, but rather, it is a failure of players within the Australian STEM and technology innovation ecosystem to recognise that this multi-dimensional conversation is being reduced to a 1-dimensional discussion, and that it is a function of the narrow view many individuals have of STEM and innovation more generally – narrow views that come about due to society’s collective influence, as opposed to the notion that they are attempting to remain ill-informed.

    To understand this concept, we first need to accept that STEM and innovation creates more than economic value, it creates new cultural values and paradigms, and allows society to see things in new ways. By nature of how our economy works, most societies that are “capitalist” tend to value quantitative, monetary measures of growth, such as GDP, net exports, terms of trade, etc. There is no scope for the accommodation of qualitative measures of community, societal and national growth, to the point where we barely have “measures” of this type of national “value”. Australia in particular, has a somewhat amplified tether on economic growth, as we have enjoyed a period of extraordinary economic growth relative to other nations, and has thus misled many of our citizens to believe that strong economic growth is a sufficient surrogate for the benefits we enjoy today – “money can buy us happiness”.

    When you bring this mindset to a conversation that encompasses more than just monetary value, we tend to want to bring things back to a conversation we are familiar with. In this case, we reduce a potentially multidimensional discussion about STEM and technology innovation to one revolving around activities that generate revenue or not. This is dangerous, because it creates a conversational paradigm that ends up creating polarised views and opinions. Individuals that are seen to be progressive, away from the 1-D “line” by those that are aware that they are participating in a multi-dimensional conversation are seen as “too extreme” by others than cannot understand (unwillingly or otherwise) that there are many more facets to the conversation, and that there are more, non-obvious lessons to be taken away from the dialogue.

    This leads to a further situation where as time progresses, our leaders perpetuate the 1-dimensional conversation, which leads to a lack of diverse ideas, and high-quality through leadership. It also means those they lead no longer learn how to ask meaningful questions to drive dialogues away from the 1-D paradigm. Today, we see glimpses of it among some individuals, in the forms of Ian Chubb perpetually asking us the question “Transition to what?”, and more recently, Doug Hilton stating that post-doctoral researchers needing a greater voice. However, their voices and stories are somewhat disparate, as the vast majority cannot understand what is being asked/discussed in the first place. This is my reason for why I believe no-one has thoroughly or satisfactorily answered Professor Chubb’s question – it’s because we collectively don’t understand the question!
    So if the “thought leaders” are leading us down the 1-D conversation path, the majority will tend to tow the line and participate only in a narrow, polarising conversational paradigm. Then there’s the rest of Australia, her community “leaders” and other stakeholders – they see the STEM/innovation thought leadership train promote the narrowly-defined conversation, and they simply argue within the confines we’ve set in place.

    This is where I start my analysis of Ian McFarlane’s comments on generally shifting KPI’s away from peer-reviewed output toward patents. I like to think his heart is in the right place, however, I believe he does not have the cultural awareness of the language and nuances of this complex area to express his sentiments in a meaningful way. He is not aware, for example, that in certain branches of science, they don’t have peer-reviewed publications in the volumes that say, biomedical research has. If you’re in physics, your measure is conference presentations! So for this reason, his comments were dismissed because those who knew what he was trying to say “got it”, when he himself probably didn’t “get it”. For those that live in the 1-D dialogue world where their work was considered to be open-ended/considered to have no immediate application, they misconstrued his statements as an attack on their little patch. This case is an example of a multidimensional issue being reduced to a 1-D issue because of the commentator’s poor awareness (and therefore, low perceived empathy) for STEM/innovation culture.

    In the case of Larry Marshall, the reduction of his comments to the 1-D dialogue is for an entirely different reason – one I alluded to in my aforementioned blog post. Larry, though familiar with CSIRO’s/Australian STEM and innovation culture, has spent many years in the US and been on the venture capital circuit for a long time. His article and the response it’s gained (yours included) is a reaction to a situation where one tries to import someone else’s culture and bring it home. As I said in my post, it’s not because they’re not successful at what they do, it’s because our culture is not compatible with the story they’re trying to tell us – we just simply don’t buy it because we don’t “get” multidimensional STEM/innovation dialogues. As with McFarlane, we’ve reduced the comments to a 1-D dialogue and labelled it as an attack/extreme because it doesn’t “fit” our model view.

    Both of these examples serve to do one thing – cause us to fight among ourselves for our little patch – what I’ve termed as a “value-dilutive paradigm”. For as long as this continues, we will not be able to make the value pie bigger.
    So what do we do about all this? Well, it boils down to a few important things:

    1. Diversify the undergraduate/postgraduate experience to include an education in how to be societal engineers and scientists, and develop an entrepreneurial mindset built on an ethical ethos.

    One of the benefits of diversifying young, STEM-interested individuals is that it gives them a perspective on how they can contribute to society in ways other than monetary value creation being taught in business, economics and law. They develop the traits of a societal engineer, where they learn that they can make a difference beyond making money, generating research publications and patents. They learn that they can generate qualitative societal value. Further, if they can develop ethically-driven life goals, they stand a great chance of being tomorrow’s ethical leaders, and will be the driver of meaningful change. The final touch of the entrepreneurial mindset is that their horizons become broad enough to give them to capability to drive that change.

    2. Make a daily effort to create meaningful dialogue with everyone around you about how STEM and technology innovation.

    This is a particularly difficult area to address outside of health and medical research. People being born ill, becoming ill or dying are stories we all understand, and thus creating a dialogue that emphasises one’s work is relatively straightforward. However, the other areas of science, and non-tangible aspects of STEM innovation are much harder to sell. I suspect that an easier, more over-arching theme that could be narrated and might be more acceptable by Aussies is one of global citizenship. STEM and technology innovation more broadly allows us to be global citizens, and contribute to the progress and betterment of humanity – because “no-one likes a s**t neighbour, and we don’t want to be one either”. The exact specifics of the story? I’m not sure, that would be up to the individual to tell a story they align with or gravitate toward, but I think it would be an exceptionally positive step in the right direction.

    Ultimately, we have a responsibility to educate and empower everyone around us about multidimensional conversations around STEM and technology innovation. I am but a single voice, and have limited reach, so it is up to you and your readers to help me influence everyone else in a way that fosters better conversations.

    So perhaps I can sway your future posts about these topics, and help you “level-up”? This is why I didn’t want to reply on Twitter, 140 characters is the perfect place for low-value dialogue. I see where you’re coming from (for different reasons), but can also see an opportunity to broaden the dimensional “scope” of your blog post to (as Guy Kawasaki says) “make meaning”.

    • 1. Throughout your response, it’s unclear exactly which dimensions you think Australians are (a) missing and (b) ‘diluting’ into in discussions on STEM research. In one paragraph you seem to think we focus too much on the economic benefit of research, yet in another imply that scientists need to diversify and expand their professions into commercial territory, and yet another few lines down seem to switch back again to encouraging the formation of moral arguments for research. You need to define these dimensions explicitly and how your value framework works. Does a moral argument beat an economic one? What makes a typical VC interested in the former? More importantly, it is not at all clear how any of this excuses you from responding to my objection.

      2. Your argument that “no-one has thoroughly or satisfactorily answered Professor Chubb’s question … because we collectively don’t understand the question” presupposes that all STEM research funding is in need of transition and therefore this merely begs Chubb’s and Marshall’s question. First, argue for why this is so.

      These are the two major problems I have with your response. The rest reads of somewhere between business-gobbledygook and equally-verbose self-help, and I’m sorry to say that put me off great deal (though I read it all, including your blog post). It’s also littered with a mix of truisms (e.g. “STEM and innovation creates more than economic value, it … allows society to see things in new ways”) and unsupported assertions (e.g. “many of our citizens [have been misled] to believe that strong economic growth is a sufficient surrogate for the benefits we enjoy today”) that don’t progress the argument in a concise or clear manner, which didn’t help things either.

      If you truly aim to persuade me against my argument, do so in a concise and clear manner. No meaningful debate is possible otherwise, especially when you totally ignore my arguments.

  2. Pingback: A curious time | Tom Burns

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