Good science

“There was some good science in that seminar.”

“Yes? Sorry I feel asleep shortly after the first slide of maths.”

Familar? I expect every scientist occasionally gets the feeling that perhaps the person speaking is saying something interesting and important in say at a conference but why can’t they understand it? And why show us so much maths in such a small typeface?

Why do I feel slightly uncomfortable with this exchange? Well I think my discomfort begins with what is implied by “good science”. The exchange above implies that is an an abstract output such as an idea, an experimental result or a theory.

But is that all there is to being a good scientist? Producing “good science”? I hope not. I believe being a good scientist means having a wide range of skills, such working well with other scientists and mentoring students. This is in addition to producing good science. Crucially it includes the ability to clearly explain one’s research to anyone (or at a bare minimum a PhD student studying in your field). Or, as was put to me during my undergraduate degree by an influential professor: “If you can’t explain something to anybody, then you haven’t understood it.”. Let me be clear: there are of course very difficult concepts in all fields. What I have primarily in mind is seminars in your department or talks at conferences. In both cases the audience is either in your field, learning your field or is at a remove of one or two steps from your field. I am a computational biophysicist – I should be able to explain how (and why) I am simulating the dynamics of a particular protein to any molecular biologist.

The tension I am feeling I think therefore originates from the subtle distinction between what we mean by “good science” and “good scientist”: producing the former does not automatically make you the latter.

This would perhaps be straightforward enough if it didn’t sometimes feel that this is turned on its head – the more obtuse and difficult to follow a lecturer or speaker is, the more important their work must surely be. Then producing what at least appears to be “good science” (it must be because I can’t understand it) makes you a “good scientist” and, for example, being able to explain your work, maybe even to undergraduates or, worse still, school children, is a mark against your reputation. This backwards logic is unhelpful and should be confronted when found.

But can we really separate the outcome (the science) from the researchers? I doubt it; if other scientists cannot understand our work and, let’s hope, be interested in it, then our results are less likely to spur further research.

So perhaps our respondant above should have replied:

“No, I don’t think so. I couldn’t understand a thing and this is my field. If we can’t understand it how can it be good science?”


By Philip Fowler

Philip W Fowler is a computational biophysicist studying antimicrobial resistance working at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

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