mandag, mai 05, 2014

Tired of writing? Get a science writer.

What is a science writer? A person who writes about science, a scientific journalist, or any scientist that writes?

Writing is a part of science, whether it is grant applications, manuscripts, books or texts to the general public. Different people approach writing in different ways, but no doubt, writing is a tool for the thought. Through writing we sort our thoughts, sharpen hypotheses, formulate and communicate conclusions. The articles we publish form the foundation for further research through the scientific web of intertextuality. Bottom line: science is more than doing experiments. Writing is an important part of the academic and intellectual activity that is science.

It is therefore with somewhat surprise I hear about the trend that more and more departments hire scientific writers. As far as I understand, the scientific writer helps finishing manuscripts, grant applications etc. when the researchers themselves do not have time or ability to do it themselves.

I lack the knowledge of how this works in concrete situations, but I understand that this is more than the spelling-assistance and language check that many journals already ask for. If writing the paper is outsourced to external writers, what does this say about the scientific work? Is the paper then reduced to merely a technical report of what has happened in the lab? Is the conclusions of the work so obvious that no thought is needed to go through them?

tirsdag, april 22, 2014

Sydney Brenner on creativity, science and the main street

Sydney Brenner was a part of "the founding fathers of molecular biology" in Cambridge’s Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) in the 1950-60s, together with among others Francis Crick (DNA-helix and concepts of genetic information transfer) and Fred Sanger (DNA-sequencing). Brenner established C. elegans as an organism for studying genetics, and did important findings regarding RNA. 

In this highly readable interview by Elizabeth Dzeng, Brenner speaks about the atmosphere that sparked the early and revolutionary findings of molecular biology. He also reasons about why life science today makes such an innovative and creative atmosphere harder to create.

This taps into my previous blog-post about creativity and science. I do not think there is a magic bullet for creating environments like the LMB in the 1950's. But there are factors that can push a research field in one or another direction. 
- Enabling creativity and freedom instead of a highly competetive and normatively narrow field, is a place to start. 
- Working on how university campuses, undergraduate and graduate programs are organized, is another. 
- Discussing what science is and should be, is a third. 
- Training researchers and funders to acctually take risk is a fourth.


lørdag, april 12, 2014

Conformity in the scientific main street.

Modern science is treathened by conformity.

No cultures are identical, but all cultures have similarities. So also for scientific culture. The scientific cultures have values, trends, norms, presuppositions etc. As in most cultures, challenging such inherent sizes comes with a cost. It is harder to start doing something different than everyone else is doing. It might mean that you break away from established methodology, ask questions in a different manner, or disagree in presuppositions. "Conformity" is avoiding this, keeping well within the framework of the culture.

In an academic enterprise such as science conformity is problematic for obvious reasons, as the whole point of science is to be critical, creative and problem solving. Still, I think that conformity is a problem, at least in the life sciences. In a broad sense the molecular life sciences have followed the same path since Crick formulated the conceptual framework in the 1950's. This has been successful as the molecular life sciences has expanded into the molecular biological field that was opened by the technological advances of the 40s and 50s. Further technological innovations since then has lead to even further expansion. But methodologically the sciences are dominated by experimental analysis and reductionism, as initiated by the physiologist Claude Bernard in the 1870's.

The physio-chemical analysis and reductionism, with focus on finding, mapping and listing constituents, is combined with technological optimism, and a vague norm about "innovation". This is the main street of modern molecular life science. With tight time lines, competition for grants, demand for publication etc. taking the risk of breaking out of main street is not exactly encouraged. And when its seldom done, that further strengthens the feeling that it should not be done. And why would creative people be attacted to such fields? It turns into a self-enforcing process.

Why is conformity a problem? Normal science (as Thomas Kuhn called it - science within the borders of a given paradigm) has great value, no doubt. But science needs to be equipped with the diversity to tackle challenges in various ways through a diverse set of trajectories. If a scientific branch cannot do this, it will sooner or later come to a halt. We see the limits of reductionism in our problems to tackle complex diseases such as cancer and cronic inflammatory diseases. From the in vitro based idealized molecular medicine there is a large gap of understanding to how the same molecular systems in induviduals react to the multitude of environmental factors.

New ideas and approaches are needed all the time in science. Creativity should be valued as a scientific ethos.

lørdag, april 05, 2014

Change of language and profile

It has been a long time since the activity was high on this blog. Neither has it ever attracted the large masses. That is not necessarily the goal, although some of the point my writings is that someone will find it interesting.

However, life goes on. I am now working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Infectious Disease at UMass (University of Massachusetts), Worcester MA and living in Boston.

During my time in Bergen doing my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was in close contact with philosophical- and science-theory- environments. Since I moved from Bergen in 2012, I have somewhat lost this contact. Also, changing fields within molecular biology has made time scarce for philosophical and science-theory work. But the need for such discussions and reflections just increases as I am more and more embedded in the stream of "normal science".

Therefore, the topic here will be various levels of reflections on science. Also, making the blog english might open for a broader discussion. After all, science culture is an international sub-culture. And this I want to tap into.

I'll try to publish more or less worked-through reflections here every week. Stay tuned!