Life Sciences - for more years than I would like to admit.
READING RIGHT NOW-
“Jane Goodall: The woman who redefined man”
“Science Lessons: What being the CEO of Amgen taught me about management”
(or something like that)
WERE YOU BORN DOING THIS OR IS IT SOMETHING YOU PICKED UP ON THE ROAD?
Born to be a scientist. I was carrying out experiments while still in primary school.
IF YOUR WORK WAS A COMPREHENSIVE VISUAL, WHAT SORT OF COLOURS, SHAPES AND TEXTURES WOULD WE SEE?
Blues & greens with flashes of yellow and red. Or grey. Depends on the day. Shapes – it is a labyrinth with smooth rolling-walls, cul-de-sacs and hidden corners but there is a way through.
IF IT WAS A SOUND, WHAT WOULD WE HEAR?
It is silent, very calm.
WHAT DOES IT SMELL LIKE?
HOT OR COLD? ASSIGN A MEAN TEMPERATURE
THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT WHAT YOU DO
Excitement, Adventure, Discovery
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT IT?
Discovering new knowledge, putting the facts together and seeing how things work. I also really enjoy the teamwork. Having a group of people, each bringing their expertise to bear on a question. The back and forth flow of ideas can be joyful.
WHAT DISMAYS YOU?
Pointless competition and pettiness.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT YOUR WORK, IN YOUR OPINION?
That scientists are mad or absent minded. They are neither, at least they are no worse than the general population. The 20th century’s stereotyped portrayal of white-coat-wearing evil scientists did a lot of harm to the profession and negatively impacted the perception of learning science by the general public. It was kind of a dumb thing to do really. Our whole society is based on understanding the world and then using that knowledge to make life better for all. That’s science, folks! There’s also a misconception that science is ‘too hard’. It isn’t but you have to be interested in it. You have to want to understand the concepts. Science isn’t too hard, its just the people saying this don’t wish to devote themselves to it. There is a difference.
And another misconception – that science is only done by scientists. Everyone is a scientist. It is human nature to test things out, find solutions to problems and understand the things around us.
PROUDEST PROFESSIONAL MOMENT
Publishing my first paper.
ARE COMMERCIAL PRESSURES HURTING OR HELPING?
At the moment in New Zealand, there is strong pressure for research to have an immediate commercial outcome. The rationale for this is hard to argue against. With the science budget the size it is and a public wanting results that immediately translate into an economic return, it
makes sense to focus on outcome-based, targeted projects. So, in a country like New Zealand were industry has a poor record for funding R&D, the government has stepped into a role that in Europe or the US would be the domain of Industry.
Now here’s the tricky bit. Industry knows where commercial opportunity lies. These companies are very good at picking likely commercial successes. However, if a certain idea doesn’t pay off, they are also good at refocusing their resources, both human and financial, to another prospect.
Academic institutions can’t do this so easily. Firstly, they are not involved closely enough with the commercial market to develop a good track record for picking commercial certainties. They do not generally have good links to specialized commercialization expertise or the budgets to bring each potential product to market. And lastly, at the end of a grant that does not meet commercial expectations, their only recourse is to let non-tenured staff go resulting in a loss of institutional continuity and diminishing loyalty to the organization as a whole. You might think it is like this at the end of any grant, except that commercial achievements are
not held in any regard by Academic institutions producing a double-whammy to the CVs of individuals engaged in commercial activities (remember, if its commercial you cannot engage in timely publishing). Taken to extremes, this could lead to degrading research quality within Academic institutes.
Where is this all going? I think over all for NZ science the focused approach will generate quick returns on investment in the short term. It is a great time to be an Applied Scientist. It will not last, however. Like every other human endeavour, there are fashions in the science
industry and a swing away from a commercial focus is bound to happen in the future.
So is it helping or hurting? Neither. But it is imbalanced and it is redistributing the pressures within the system. That always comes with fallout.
HOW IS YOUR FIELD IMPACTED BY THE ETHICAL & CULTURAL CONCERNS OF
Society’s ethical and moral concerns lead to better science. It makes one look at each experiment or project from multiple viewpoints before commencing the work. This process contributes to the intense rigor applied to investigations, making sure findings are correct and complete to the best of one’s ability. Scientists must tell the truth so high ethical standards are part of the job description. There is no quicker way to halt a scientific career than to lie about the data!
It is critically important that laypeople engage with science and scientists. Through that engagement discoveries are translated into culturally relevant outcomes. This leads to new technologies (computers, cars, cures) that meet real needs and go on to grow and mature (e.g. from the spinning-jenny to iPods). Science is the accumulation of facts – it works this way, it’s made of X. Our cultural, ethical and moral framework shapes what is done with this
knowledge and even our interpretation of it. The facts are neutral but the use of them is not. This is guided by society.
YOU'RE A GENETIC SCIENTIST. GO NUTS AND SAY SOMETHING BRAVE/HONEST
What I will say is that G.E. is already happening around the world so as a society we must understand as much about the process, the pros-&-cons and the potential fallout as we can. Head-and-sand scenarios are not an option.
ARE STEREOTYPES HURTING SCIENCE?
See above. Thankfully, the 21st century has seen more scientists being the good guys and we now have mainstream accurate entertainments (thank you David A!). That’s a big improvement. However, a rash of ‘science-based’ crime shows are not the healthiest phenomena.
IF THE GENDER ISSUE IN SCIENCE WAS AN ANIMAL, WHAT SIZE BEAST ARE WE
TALKING ABOUT? CLASSIFY IT.
It’s a small elephant, maybe the size of a cow. There is something going on in the science profession but I haven’t pinned down a cause to my own satisfaction. My observation is that many of the top jobs are held by men, though the imbalance is less than other professions. But is this selection bias towards males, a legacy issue from a previous generation or is it something coming from the women themselves such as a reluctance to step up? I don’t have the data. Given the disproportionately high number of women taking higher degrees, it will be interesting to watch these numbers over the next few years. But if I was to place a bet on the
outcome, I have a sinking feeling that proportionality will not be maintained.
WHY ARE YOU STILL DOING THIS?
Because I still really enjoy what’s at the heart of the job.
Thanks Dr Jo. All that and only one typo. Bloody scientists!