Agreeing and disagreeing with a scientific legend

There’s a tendency for people on social media to treat anything certain scientists say as if it were gospel, to speak about those scientists in awe-struck hushed tones.  I don’t think this is particularly constructive, and we don’t have to look far to see exceptional scientists saying things which are ill-advised and incorrect (to say the least).

I’m also very comfortable with the fact that any scientific legend worth their salt couldn’t give a hoot what I think about them.

So onwards to the point…

Sydney Brenner

Elizabeth Dzeng wrote a piece recently around her conversation with Sydney Brenner.  Nick Loman recommended this on twitter and I agree with him, it’s a good read.  I want to raise a few of Sydney’s points and give some of my own opinions on them.

One of the points on which I agree with him is his assertion that we should invest in the young; that we should give science to young people and let them run with it, that their youthful enthusiasm and naivety will bring benefits that older, established scientists would not.  I agree whole-heartedly, and this is something I have tried to do during my own career, to recognise when young people are ready to take the next step, to take responsibility.  It is a huge shame that we rarely reward good young scientists with grants, to see what they can do with the money (and a little guidance).  I’d love to see this change.

However, there is one huge caveat: perhaps Sydney Brenner (being who he is) experiences a different type of “young scientist” to those I have encountered.  For sure, I have encountered young scientists full of ideas, drive and enthusiasm, who work hard and are just chomping at the bit to get ahead and do amazing science.  They’re a joy to work with and soak up any advice you can give them.  I wish there were more.  I’m not naming names because I want to keep them!

However, there is also a fair share of the opposite: lazy, witless kids, full of self-importance yet devoid of ideas who think the World owes them a living. (this is a general observation, and does not reflect on anyone I have worked with, past or present :-)).

I’d have to say, based on my totally subjective observations, the split is about 50:50.

If I can turn this into any kind of positive, then it’s this: if you are reading this, and you are worried about which category you fit in to, then you probably fit into the former category.  In my experience, those who worry and question their own performance are generally those who are driven to succeed, who go the extra mile to achieve what others might not.  If you’re not worried about which category you fall into, if you’re just reading this to fill time before your bus comes, dreaming of which pizza you’re going to order later, then you probably fall into the latter, and to those people I’d say to you that scientific research is probably not for you, and there are tons of other jobs out there that you will be more successful in :-)

Brenner went on to say that Fred Sanger would not survive in today’s world of scientific research, and of course, he is talking complete crap.  I’ll make an analogy here: take a look at Fred Perry winning Wimbledon in 1934 on YouTube, and then tell me he’d even win a single point against Novak Djokovic.  He wouldn’t, he’d get creamed.  But of course, should Fred Perry have existed in the modern world, he wouldn’t have played tennis like it was played in 1934, he’d play it like it’s played now; and he wouldn’t use a heavy, wooden racket, he’d use one of the custom-designed carbon-fibre ones we see today – then who knows what would happen?

The point is that, just like tennis, the “game” of science has changed, it’s different now to the way it was during Sanger’s time and I have no doubt Sanger would have adapted.  He’d have been successful, but in a different way – for example, the technology he developed may have been spun out into a company (just as Solexa was spun out of Cambridge), and bought by a larger Biotech – where the technology would be developed free of the pressures of academic research.

The final point I wanted to bring up is this: Brenner states that he thinks that peer review has become a completely corrupt system.  Again, this is just not true.  It is not a perfect system and I would change it if I could, but the vast, vast majority of editors and reviewers working in the peer-review system today are honest and truthful; they work hard and with integrity.  To say the system if “completely corrupt” is really not true.

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Perhaps I am being picky, and perhaps this post amounts to an ad hominem attack against Brenner’s points, many of which I largely agree with.  Opposing opinions are important in science though, and I’m sure Sydney wouldn’t mind :-)

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One thought on “Agreeing and disagreeing with a scientific legend

  1. homolog.us

    Kudos to Brenner for starting to publicly make fun of Science/Nature culture ~20 years back.

    http://www.homolog.us/blogs/blog/2014/03/05/lawsuit-editors-publishers-nascence-sydney-brenner/

    “Brenner went on to say that Fred Sanger would not survive in today’s world of scientific research, and of course, he is talking complete crap. I’ll make an analogy here: take a look at Fred Perry winning Wimbledon in 1934 on YouTube, and then tell me he’d even win a single point against Novak Djokovic. He wouldn’t, he’d get creamed. But of course, should Fred Perry have existed in the modern world, he wouldn’t have played tennis like it was played in 1934, he’d play it like it’s played now; and he wouldn’t use a heavy, wooden racket, he’d use one of the custom-designed carbon-fibre ones we see today – then who knows what would happen?”

    Most likely he would have gone to work for a hedge fund or finance company :)

    Reply

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