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After the event: Would Darwin get a job in science today?

By Mark Carnall, on 2 February 2011

Darwin as a modern scientist

Darwin as a modern scientist?

Last night the Grant Museum hosted an event discussing the merits of ‘old school’ science based on observation and studying real things against ‘modern science’ in the lab using computer models and the like. This is a gross simplification but essentially strikes at the heart of last night’s event. Annoyingly, the idea for the event and one of our speakers was poached for the Today Programme on Radio 4 broadcast yesterday morning, which normally we wouldn’t mind, we even helped put them in touch with some of our panelists but the museum didn’t even get a credit. We have a very small team here and I hope our learning and access manager, Jack Ashby doesn’t cringe when I say he works very hard to schedule some really great events. This is unfortunate because for better or worse, media coverage does go a long way to justifying our existence as a cultural institution but sadly not getting credited does happen with some frequency. Anyway, on to the event itself.

Broadly, the panel discussion and debate was framed by contemplating whether Charles Darwin would realisticaly get a job in science today. Moving from a time of gentleman naturalists with the means to explore and describe, experiment and invent to an era of funding applications and directed research, we asked whether things have got better. Of course, none of the participants would claim that ‘science’ can be broadly cleaved into discrete camps or that geneticists operate in ignorance of the fossil record or that field scientists put no stock in something that can’t be observed but it is fun to fight a corner and play devil’s advocate as well as encourage some interesting debate exploring these issues. However, light hearted debate aside, these issues do sometimes manifest themselves as pre-emptively mused upon here over at the excellent Prerogative of Harlots.

The discussion in the swelteringly warm JZ Young lecture theatre was chaired and steered by the aforementioned Jack Ashby and the panelists were palaeobiologist Dr Anjali Goswami (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment and UCL Earth Sciences); science historian Dr Joe Cain (UCL Science and Technology Studies) and evolutionary geneticist Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment). Here are my rough notes typed up, hopefully capturing the main thrusts of the discussion.

Dr Joe Cain kicked off proceedings with a lively case for why a 30 year old Darwin, obviously would almost waltz into a job in science were he to turn up at UCL today. Not only was Darwin good at ‘intellectual work’; both fact and theory but he had made the right social connections, was extremely productive (and REF-able), was good at raising money not just relying on his inherited means and was willing to potentially take a demotion in his social standing to go from the high status of gentlemen to a scientist. Somebody who had to ‘work’.

Dr Anjali Goswami began by explaining that her work involved information from modern science to inform her work in palaeobiolgy. She had doubts that Darwin would get a job in science today as Darwin excelled in basic science but applied science  is more prevalent now. Darwin might struggle with his impact.

Prof. Mark Thomas is a human, human geneticist whose work is researching the evolution of humans, how our (sub?)species evolved and adapted over time. His work examines gene-culture evolution neither of which can be sensibly researched in isolation for human beings. Not only would Darwin get a job in science today but without a doubt he would definitely be a geneticist as genetics can answer more questions than any other single branch of science (he said with a wry smile). Mark stressed that it is shame that scientists can be so easily judged on their funding income and that it is impossible to predict where the pay-offs will be in the future and what should be researched now. Moving in between the directions set by policy drivers can be fruitful.

Q: Do you think most scientists consider natural history to be outdated? MT stressed that he considers his work to be natural history. AG thought that there is a stigma surrounding ‘natural history’ and JC went further to suggest it is a problem with the image of natural history as a form of stamp collecting or the aggregation of just facts rather than and ideological and intellectual architecture in which to place the facts. Darwin did both with his most famous works (like the Origin of Species) dealing with intellectual architecture, however, his work on pigeon breeds was high impact and of immediate use and benefit and possibly the genetics of the pre-genetics world. MT but Darwin is best known for his theoretical works which in many ways helped to transform biology into a ‘hard’ science. A comment from the audience was: yes but he was still a field scientist which AG cheekily used to suggest is why Darwin would not be a geneticist.

Q: Thinking about what is funded in biology today do we need an animal’s genome or should we be going into the field and studying the animal? AG both are needed today and neither would work in isolation. MT if we’re interested in the origins and evolutions of species then information from fossils and extant animals is absolutely required but more importantly genetics offer so much more information, much of which we still don’t even understand how to interpret of even look for. AG but without fossils there’s no context, you wouldn’t be able to detect mass extinction or the origins of what we call birds from genetics alone.

Audience comments: But Darwin was a major procrastinator, taking 20 years to write the Origin of Species. Also, Darwin could be accused of fraud and suppressing other or complementary natural selection theories. Also, he’s a toff. This comment caused a lot of discussion from the audience. It wasn’t fraud, it was a coincidence. One audience member pointed out that Darwin did express regret about some of the professional jealousy in his autobiography but he did publish first.

Audience question: Even though he had favourable qualifications would Darwin get a job in science in the recession? AG lots of well qualified people are shut out of jobs in science, especially now. JC stressed that Darwin was super competitive, even organising his household as a mini scientific research centre with his wife translating papers, his servants doing fieldwork and his children acting as convenient data points.

Audience question: If Darwin didn’t have a job in science today wouldn’t it have been impossible to engage in science? For example, the primary school children who allegedly had great trouble publishing a perfectly scientific paper. JC of course the problem with the question of whether Darwin would get a job in science today is complicated by how today we naturally link science as only ever happening at a University. The generations just after Darwin used his work to professionalize science so he was doing work that would help found professional science how we see it today. AG and non-professionals can publish, in areas like palaeobiology they contribute a lot. MT It is possible to be an amateur geneticist but in order to get a job today you do need to collaborate and teach. JC Darwin never openly taught but he did collaborate with many, many people through correspondence and travelling around. From his correspondence and works we can tell he placed great importance on conscilliance- theories that work across groups and structures so of course he would be collaborative.

Q: Are scientists too specific in the areas they work in, compared to in the past?
AG It depends where they are. Lip-service is often paid to interdisciplinary work however, it is still very competitive and so individuals want to do their best too. MT it can be done but it is very hard to be a generalist. Science today is much more crowded so naturally people begin to specify in ever smaller areas of scientific work. JC there is great pressure for research to be relevant, making rocks interesting and genetics profound are two such examples.

Q: Does the focus on short-term impact mean that there won’t be any discipline changing science any more? AG This is a question specific to UK science now. MT Again, science gets ever more crowded. Universities have grown science in the past was necessarily more fundamental and perceived to be more productive. However, working to short term goals does mean that those far off unpredictable big findings become more serendipitous. JC pursuing blue sky thinking has always been an anomaly but today there is a much greater focus on immediate impact where as in the 19th century long and very long term value was seen as an acceptable outcome from science. MT Which isn’t to say there’s no place for short term value. AG fundamental shifts still occur today, for example the explosion in evolutionary developmental biology. We still really know very little but there’s lots of competition for narrow niches of science which are known to be fruitful and vast expanses where our knowledge is virtually nil.

Q: Has science got better? MT Yes science is now publicly funded much much more and we are standing on the shoulders of giants. AG Yes but we’re at a local low now, short term goals potentially slowing perceived progression in science. JC The worst thing about today is that working in science is so exclusive. 7-10 years and thousands of pounds is the entry requirement to even get started in science today which doesn’t need to be the case, for example, great natural history science can be done studying the worms in your garden and we’ve forgotten that you shouldn’t need money to even begin.

Q: Would Darwin get a job in science today? MT Yes, he was capable and enthusiastic with the ability to work on grand theories as well as the minutiae. He’d definitely be a geneticist. AG No, a 30-year-old Darwin would find it hard to get a foot in the door. JC Yes he would but not at UCL because he’d want to avoid people like Robert Grant who would disagree with him a lot.

Thanks again to all our panellists and audience, and again apologies for the temperature of the room.

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