Im not alone 🙂 Us Mad Scientists have to stick together…..(Kevin @ the Labs)
Why science is vital, and why scientists will be demonstrating this Saturday. Guest post by Jennifer Rohn
When I was a 14-year old student back in Ohio, my classmates and teachers voted me “most likely to become a scientist”. I’m still not convinced this was meant as a compliment. My parents – two artists – generously supported me through my biology degree at university, but seemed baffled when I expressed my wish to attend graduate school to continue my scientific training.
I cannot tell you now what drove me to become a scientist. All I know is that the desire was always there, long before I can remember making any concrete decisions. My father used to point his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, and drill holes in peanut-butter jars so I could capture fireflies on sultry summer nights. Many moths felt the youthful wrath of my net, and billions of protozoa and amoebae flinched under the light of my flimsy child’s microscope. The test tubes of my chemistry set were perpetually scarred with black gunk; I polished rocks, pressed flowers, sketched trees, tracked animal prints in the snow.
Where did this come from? I knew no real-life scientists, had no role models that I can recall – unless you count Danny Dunn, a fictional child who went on exploits with his boffin friend Professor Bullfinch in the series of books by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. The impetus was just there, pushing me forward on a path that seemed inevitable.
But inevitability is for children. Thirty-odd years on, I know that there is no Santa Claus, and that wanting to be a scientist is not enough to make it last forever. For the profession I love is not any more secure than that of my artist parents. “You don’t go into science to get rich,” one mentor in university confided early on; later, during my first postdoctoral position, it became clear that you don’t go into science for job security either. Along the way, most of my colleagues have sacrificed their dreams and bailed out, unable to land permanent positions as the funding landscape grew tighter and tighter.
With only one year left on my own fellowship, and nearly 15 years after earning a PhD, I too am staring into the abyss. And yet something is preventing me from leaving research, no matter how much sense it makes to flee the sinking ship before the water actually starts slopping onto the deck.
It may sound corny, but I am in love with science. I love the physical manipulations; I love the intellectual atmosphere; I love the mind-bending problems, the euphoria of seeing something that no one else in the world ever has before. I love the thought that, despite the bad pay and the poor prospects, the work that I do might actually help people. I am fiercely proud of one of my patents, an invention aimed at curing some cancers. I am intensely aware that the trappings of civilisation that hold us together – the energy, the medicines, the vehicles, the machines, the computers, the internet – are the products of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
When you deal with science on a daily basis, it is difficult to take its fruits for granted. Science gives most people the luxury to forget, at least for a while, that the world can be a brutal and dangerous place. On a planet fraught with dwindling resources, burgeoning population, emerging disease and uncertain climate, we abandon science at our peril.
It is with this backdrop that a new chapter in my life began: Science Is Vital, a grassroots campaign to support UK research. I’d like to tell you that I thought long and hard about it, but the truth is that it was an almost instantaneous reaction: I read Vince Cable’s now infamous speech signalling crippling cuts to science funding, dashed off an angry blog post, and proposed marching in the streets on Twitter all in the space of about 15 minutes.
I honestly did not expect it to take off. Scientists, grappling as they are with the mysteries of the universe, don’t always pay attention to what is going on outside of their labs, offices and field stations. We are notoriously resistant to extraneous demands on our time. There will be the occasional chiding essay in a scholarly journal, berating us to take an interest in science policy, to speak out to defend what it is that we do. Perhaps we have ignored these pleas once too often. But this time I could sense that it was serious.
Organising this campaign has been hard work, and frankly, an ill-advised distraction from producing the research data that will help me land that elusive position. But this is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
What really drives me – and probably the many thousands of scientists who have now signed our petition – goes beyond the mere threat to our jobs. The UK economy is still precarious: there is strong evidence that decreasing science funding will backfire and lead to far more long-term harm than any short-term savings that will result. Sir Patrick Moore says it best, in an endorsement on our website: “If we cut funds for science we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Science is vital. And it’s not just scientists who think so: our petition, which has more than ten thousand contributors and rising, has been signed by a wonderfully diverse array of people, from artists, social workers and builders to ministers, legal secretaries, and fire fighters, even a self-professed “house hubby”. Our campaign, in partnership with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, has been endorsed by groups such as the British Heart Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and many scientific societies.
If you agree, please sign our petition, write to your MP , consider joining us on our Parliamentary Lobby on Tuesday 12 October, and above all, come to our rally this Saturday 9 October in central London – we’re expecting thousands.
Think of it: scientists and their supporters, massing in the streets! We’d like as many people as possible visibly displaying their pride in science, whether it is by wearing their white coat, T-shirts with their favorite scientific image or wielding scientific objects and placards.
As for chants on the rally, let’s see if we can do better than how Colin Blakemore lampooned us in a recent Times piece: “What do we want?” “Thorough consideration of the evidence that public expenditure on research is causally linked to economic benefits!” “When do we want it?” “As soon as the Government is able to gather full, peer-reviewed data!”
I prefer something punchier, like “Science: it beats living in caves.”
I’d love to hear your own suggestions.
Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London. In her spare time, she is also a science writer, broadcaster, novelist and editor of LabLit.com. She blogs at Mind The Gap, and her second novel, The Honest Look, is published in November
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- How vital is science? (nature.com)
- Science funding cuts could lead to a lost generation of British scientists, warns Krebs (guardian.co.uk)
- Science funding cuts: UK scientists struggle to ‘do more with less’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Science is Vital (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Mark Hyman deceives about “science research deception” [Respectful Insolence] (scienceblogs.com)
- Cash-strapped science departments face overseas brain drain (guardian.co.uk)