Do grant applications stop us from becoming evil scientists?

I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. Pretty much anything he has written, I love. I even enjoyed Cabin in the Woods and I hate horror movies (especially those with zombies in them). Nowadays Joss Whedon’s work is pretty well known, and not just Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Avengers, but some of his lesser known shows like Much Ado About Nothing and Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. One show that not many people know about though is Dollhouse, a TV show based on the idea that you can have your mind wiped of it’s personality and then imprinted with another personality of the client’s choosing. It raises interesting questions of personal choice and the nature of identity, but it also has some brilliant characters and one of them, Topher Brink, recently got me thinking. Topher is the resident ‘science guy’ and he is a genius, however he is seriously shaky in the morals department. During the course of the show, he makes a series of increasingly bad decisions, but none of them seem to be made from a malicious perspective – he simply doesn’t think about whether what he is doing is right or wrong, curiosity wins over morality every time.

Topher (played by the actor Fran Kurtz) looking remarkably calm (source: Wikipedia)

Topher (played by the actor Fran Kurtz) looking remarkably calm (source: Wikipedia)

The point in the show where this really starts to have negative repercussions for everyone (not just Topher or his immediate circle) is when the company he works for gives him unlimited funds to explore his ideas, with no-one holding him to account at all. The results are disastrous and only after does Topher realise that perhaps his unconfined curiosity is dangerous. This led me to think about other ‘evil scientists’ in literature. Now sure there are those who are just poor struggling scientists, who go through an industrial accident like falling into a vat of strangely coloured liquid with toxic properties (and you think they would stop keeping these vats just lying around), but more often than not they are either extremely wealthy themselves – or employed by someone extremely wealthy who encourages them to push their science as far as possible with no moral contraints. The one thing that I don’t ever remember seeing any of these scientists do is write a grant application. They don’t have to – either themselves or their sponsors are fabulously wealthy, so they don’t have to justify themselves.

So I started to wonder – do grant applications stop us from becoming evil scientists?! Well lets start with the idea that if we were all given access to unlimited funds, most of would probably still exercise some moral restraint in what we chose to research. Personally I don’t want to invent mind control technology or a better chemical weapon. And even if I did, I have too little faith in human nature to do it. Heck I don’t even want to research how people accept an idea rather than gain understanding because I’m worried about that research being used to influence people in a way they wouldn’t necessarily choose (and ok I do kinda want to research it – it’s interesting! But I probably won’t – understanding is more interesting to me). I think the idea of grant applications stopping us from being evil scientists is not so much related to the ‘evil scientist’ concept as the ‘indifferent scientist’. That’s what Topher is – he’s not evil; he’s indifferent. Grant applications make us think about the uses of our research, the importance of the data to people other than our immediate peers. The positive and perhaps the negative repercussions of that research.

I think very few people actually have it in them to throw themselves fully to the dark side, but a lot of people have the propensity to ignore the plight of people different to them, or even to dismiss the concerns of those people as irrelevant. Making us write the grant applications makes us think of other reasons to do our research, or reasons to be cautious when doing it. In a way they are similar to ethical applications, but with a long range view. The big picture ethical implications of our research.

I would like to think that with unlimited funds I wouldn’t become an evil scientist, or even an indifferent one. But maybe that’s something we should think about more. After all, indifference can be the first step down the road to a future I’m not sure I wanted to be a part of.

Communicating Contested Geoscience

On Friday 20th June I attended the Communicating Contested Geoscience conference at the Geological Society’s Burlington House. The title for this conference was ‘new strategies for public engagement‘ and it was focused on three of the more controversial geological subjects in development at the moment; carbon capture and storage, radioactive waste disposal and fracking for shale gas. The day featured speakers from across a wide range of public bodies and private companies, academia and industry and provided a brilliant synopsis of many of the biggest issues with communicating these subjects that geologists see today.


The day was started off with Prof Iain Stewart talking about our responsibility to communicate what we do to the public and that reliance on the old style deficit model is no longer an option. The idea that ‘if we can get the science and then just tell that to the public then they will understand’ is no longer the case; as trust, relationships and fear all play a part in how the public respond to our attempts at communication.

David Manning, the new president of the Geological Society gave the first talk of the day, reflecting on the role of geoscientists in society and the responsibilities of large organisations like the Geological Society to provide facts that allow people to make their own decisions. He mentioned that it would be next to impossible to fully represent their members’ opinions as with 12,000 members it wasn’t unreasonable that they would have to represent 12,000 opinions! He also introduced what was to become a central concept of the day, the role of the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social and economic and the role of these in communication.


The first session addressed one of the most high profile examples of the difficulty of communicating our geoscience – fracking for shale gas. It was chaired by Zoe Shipton from Strathclyde University and the panel consisted of David Mackay from DECC and the University of Cambridge, Mike Stephenson from the BGS, Brigitte Nerlich from Nottingham University and Mark Lappin formerly of Dart Energy. The shale gas session was always going to be one of the most difficult and was frequently threatened to derail in pursuit of technical issues, but Dr Shipton did an excellent job of keeping everyone on the Communication track. The session looked at the uncertainties of shale gas resources, comparing them to various renewable technologies, the changing nature of public engagement, the influence of the media and what is ‘the community’. The panellists also took a look at perceptions of the need for gas – brilliantly exemplified by a tweet sent from the protesters at Barton Moss “Urgently need gas for cooker!”


At the end of this session spirits were running high and a number of good discussions on how to build and maintain trust and effective ways to engage with the community were explored and whether more or less data was better for transparent communication and understanding. One interesting point raised by a member of the audience was on the nature of risk – that it’s often easy to dismiss risk for the public because we know the statistics, but for the average person that risk is not approached in the same way.

The second session of the day was about CCS (or Carbon Capture and Storage). The panel was chaired by Clair Bond from the University of Aberdeen and consisted of Andy Chadwick from the BGS, Jon Gluyas from Durham University, Kirsty Anderson from Global CCS and Clair Gough from the Tyndall Centre and the University of Manchester.


Although this session focussed on a range of ideas from the difficulty of communicating scales – even accurate ones – to understanding the societal context and peripheral issues of CCS, one of the best talks in my opinion came from Kirsty Anderson of Global CCS, the only non geologist on the panel. Kirsty talked about the value of having an embedded communication strategy at all levels of the project team and also stressed the importance using target communications early – which does not mean going to a paper early, but engaging with stakeholders and other key influential people. She also highlighted how words that we see as innocuous actually can leave a lasting impression – such as to ‘plug and abandon the well’ may leave thoughts of poor little abandoned orphan wells all over the country!


We came out of that session mulling over the idea that controversial does not necessarily mean conflict, but that it is actually a critical element of the debate, which should not be ignored, suppressed or managed away.

The third session of the day focused on Radioactive Waste Disposal. The session was chaired by Nick Smith from the University of Manchester and featured Rebecca Lunn from the University of Strathclyde and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). The panel was also made up of the two Bruces; Bruce Yardley from the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency and Bruce Cairns from DECC, and Phil Richardson from Galson Sciences.


This session was interesting as it looked at the pressing issues of radioactive waste disposal – how much waste we have already and the need for long term solutions – and how they make this a particularly challenging issue. In addition the obvious notions about what makes secure storage are not necessarily true – in some locations a fractured geological storage can be used as the geology itself is not necessarily the barrier to flow, but what keeps the engineered barriers in place. Once again there was lots of discussion about when to communicate and how to get in touch with communities, but was interesting was how the discussion had started to shift back towards the deficit model of communications. The discussion became less about dialogue and more about information transfer – what to tell people, not how to engage them.

The final session focussed on the central issue to all the topics of the day – public engagement. The session was chaired by Iain Stewart, the keynote was presented by Nick Pidgeon from Cardiff University and the panel consisted of Ruth Allington from GWP Partners and David Reiner from the University of Cambridge.


This was almost a summing up session, exploring the social context of risk and how we apply local issues to the national question, but also about the importance of images and of a balanced mediation in dealing with the public and industry. However, after these issues were raised in the presentations, focus of the questions seemed to slide back to information transfer. It almost seems like we need to get this discussion fully out of our collective scientific system before we can move on to new methods and approaches.

The day was closed by the fantastic Paul Younger from the University of Glasgow. His light-hearted and humorous presentation reminded us that we are a community that needs to stick together and that although it is easy to be critical of ourselves as a community, we don’t actually do that badly – and at least, with conferences like today’s we are attempting to improve our approach. He ended by singing us a little song to remind of why we do any of this at all –

‘the things we do for love’.

(photo from the-geek-goddess)


For more info and links check out the Storify.

Cheltenham Science Festival

It's a Science Festival!!!

It’s a Science Festival!!!

This year, for the first time, I attended the Cheltenham Science Festival as a tourist. And it was great!! I was particularly pleased to see how much geoscience there was there, and had a number of great chats with scientists and engineers on the value of the festival and of the work or research that they were doing. As a quick snapshot, here are a few of my favourite things from the festival…

Visual information

Visual information

Giant molecular models

Giant molecular models

For some common materials as well as uncommon ones

For some common materials as well as uncommon ones

Fabulous women engineers engaging future engineers....

Fabulous women engineers engaging future engineers….



And engineering...

And engineering…



Even rooocckkks from spaaaaaaceeee!

Even rooocckkks from spaaaaaaceeee!

All signs leads to science!

All signs lead to science!

Where is the line between academic criticism and personal attack?

As an academic, you expect criticism (and no, not from my parents about getting a ‘real job’, they are very supportive!). In a way, it’s kind of your job to both give and receive criticism of the research that you read, but recently I have been wondering about the line between criticism and personal attack. Whilst at the EGU Conference, I was shocked to attend a session where a member of the audience attacked a young researcher, calling her research ‘trivial’. This experience was surprising to me, because up until that point I had seen and been involved in many debates about different reserach, but never had one been addressed with such apparent vitriol. Now I didn’t know either of the researchers involved, so perhaps there was a personal relationship at work there, but nevertheless, it seemed really unprofessional – where was the constructive aspect that, if you thought the research was substandard, could move it forward and improve it? Isn’t that the point?


A possible reason for conflict could be in the difference between an experimental researcher and a computational reseracher, but the question I would ask then is, in that case does the one have any right to critically assess the other, without at least an attempt at understanding? And in that circumstance of an open debate, should you have another method of expressing your feedback if you are not an expert in that area? I say this with trepidation, because I personally am of the opinion that anyone should have the opportunity to comment on scientific research, whatever their background and area of expertise, and some of my best advice has come from researchers outside my field. Having said that, all of that advice was offered constructively and with good intentions.

But possible ‘attack’ rather than criticism doesn’t just occur between researchers from different fields. I recently saw another example of the blurred line between academic criticism and personal attack at a seminar I attended, where a young researcher was critiqued in increasingly aggressive and dismissive language by a more established member of the staff. This at least started out as genuine criticism, but when the researcher tried to defend their evidence in the face of an alternative interpretation, the staff member replied with increasing hostility. Now, in this case, although both academics were in the same field, one was older and more established, but the second academic was younger and had just won a prestigious grant, so perhaps there was a case of professional jealousy happening here. Still, I could only think of the other young researchers present, like myself, who were perhaps thinking – I don’t want to subject myself to this!

A PhD Comic about presenting at a conference that in many cases is scarily accurate…!

Now I have to make it clear here, I am in no way against the current method of presenting your results for criticism. Without an open and transparent way to examine each other’s data – how can we avoid scientific research from become corrupt? What I think needs to change is the way that those few researchers who respond aggressively are treated themselves in the scientific community. In the same way as misbehaviour is treated in the workplace, personal attacks should be banned in scientific conferences and seminars. Those who let their criticism slide into attack should be given a warning that they will not be allowed to comment again if this continues, and moderators should be very clear that this kind of behaviour is not tolerated. I will at this point say that in both circumstances I observed, the moderators were very good at defending the presenter in the firing line, but I still felt that there was a general acceptance of this behaviour, because it was seen as criticism. One of the hardest things to do as a scientist is to remove your personal feelings from your data as much as possible and this HAS to carry over to criticism as well.

A concerning flip side of this coin is the willingness of academics and researchers to present new and possibly controversial ideas. If you feel confident that it is only your data and results that will be questioned then you will be happy to submit your idea for criticism, as you would hope that concerns will either be answered or will reveal any weaknesses in your idea that you can address. However, if you feel that you yourself will become the subject of the criticism, most people – understandably – would not want to put themselves in that position and so would possibly not present their idea in the same way. It makes me think of all of those scientific discoveries that took decades to see the light of the scientific community because the authors were afraid of how they would be received. You only have to look at Charles Darwin to see how fear can control scientific data.

It’s a tricky topic – criticism is vital to keep scientists moving forward (and honest!), but when criticism becomes attack it can stifle scientific creativity. How do we balance the two? I feel like I should finish with a line from a show that really introduced the idea of combining constructive criticism and personal attack – The Jerry Springer Show:

“Until next time, take care of yourself – and each other.”