Optimism is a sine qua non for scientists

A career in science is built on hope and naviety as well as intellect, argues Russell Foster

September 26, 2013

Source: Miles Cole

A colleague once said: ‘When I get a paper in Cell, I will retire.’ He retired never having had a paper in Cell. But his optimism that he would sustained his enthusiasm and his first-class work

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes famously described the life of mankind in the pre-social “state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. My careers adviser at my old comprehensive in Aldershot, Hampshire – I will call him Mr Mitchell – told me that this was the fate and career path of most scientists.

Aspiring to be a male nurse or a teacher, he said, would be much safer ambitions: both were structured careers with the certainty of helping others, whereas science offered an uncertain career trajectory and was of little societal value.

But I don’t want to talk about Mr Mitchell’s flawed assumptions about a career in science, or indeed his failure to understand the fundamental value of science to society. Rather I would like to consider why I – and perhaps many other scientists – ignored careers advice like this back in the 1970s.

The poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge addressed the fundamental nature of being a scientist when he wrote: “The first man of science was he who looked into a thing, not to learn whether it could furnish him with food, or shelter, or weapons, or tools, or ornaments, or playwiths, but who sought to know it for the gratification of knowing.” Before any appreciation of the ability of science to improve society or knowledge of the power of the scientific method, there is the undiluted thrill of trying to understand the world that surrounds us. As children we constantly ask “how” and “why”, and scientists are those individuals who never grow out of the habit. Also like children, scientists are sustained by the dogged hope that, eventually, those questions will be answered. Hope is built upon optimism, enthusiasm and perhaps a certain level of naivety. These are personality traits we seldom link to a successful career in science, yet I would argue that they play an important and, in some cases, a vital role in sustaining scientific enquiry.

Like many children, I was given a simple microscope with pre-prepared slides of pollen grains, insect parts and animal fur. The tiny eyepiece of the microscope meant that my eyelashes obscured the view of this hidden universe. It was like looking through a cage, so I cut off my eyelashes. While this improved the view of the specimens, my parents’ reaction tempered my enthusiasm. This was also my first lesson in appreciating the broader implications of undertaking research. Meanwhile our garden shed was turned into a laboratory; houseflies were placed into tubes and stuck to the record player to see if spinning would disorient them; fox skulls were collected from the local copse; and constant pestering got me a better microscope.

Miles Cole feature illustration (26 September 2013)

Working in the US profoundly changed people. To enter an environment where enthusiasm, optimism and ambition were applauded and seen as key elements to success was liberating

Although such behaviour might have signalled that my future career lay in science, the path was far from certain. In one sense Mr Mitchell did get it right: becoming a research scientist is not straightforward; and beyond a certain level of intelligence, a good degree in science, optimism and enthusiasm, you need luck. It may have been reasonable for Louis Pasteur to say in the 19th century that “chance favours the prepared mind”, but different rules apply today. You need more than a swan-neck flask and beef broth for that big discovery, no matter how clever you are. Winkling out good results requires funding and infrastructure before morsels of data can be thrown into the jaws of the “prepared mind”. I was lucky enough to undertake my PhD work in a well-funded and well-equipped laboratory, with a first-class supervisor. But I did not know this at the time. I wanted to join this team because they were asking exciting questions and doing fascinating research. My enthusiasm dictated my luck.

Publish or perish” goes the modern academic mantra. And it is true: getting the right sort of data, leading to publications in the top-ranked scientific journals, is both exceedingly difficult and incredibly important for career advancement. The battle of getting past the editors and then the referees makes the Grand National look like an egg-and-spoon race undertaken by nuns. A colleague once told me: “When I get a paper published in Cell, I will retire.” He is now retired, but he never had a paper in Cell. The crucial point, however, is that his optimism drove him to think that one day he would get a paper into Cell. This optimism sustained his unbounded enthusiasm and his capacity to deliver first-class science.

When optimism and enthusiasm wither, the complacency of mediocrity diminishes the capacity to do first-class science. Three personal experiences of this convinced me to move to the US in the late 1980s. I was interviewed for a permanent post within a middle-sized research institute in Berkshire, and before the formal interview I was shown around empty and unused laboratories and told where former scientists had worked before opting for early retirement. The air of gloom was pervasive, and my recollection of this sad tour still grips me like a cold hand on the vitals. My guide concluded the visit by saying: “We may not be high-flyers here, but we put in an honest day’s work.” I thought there should have been a sign above the entrance saying: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

My second experience also involved a job interview, this time for a lectureship in a distinguished university in the North of England. I entered a very grand room and sat at the end of a polished table. Pleasantries were exchanged and the interview began. I outlined my research vision and was interrupted by a cheerless individual who said: “Yes, that’s all very well, Dr Foster, but I see you have spent time undertaking research in Germany, Holland and have even returned from a short fellowship in the US to attend this interview. Would you continue with this gallivanting if you were appointed here?” I laughed, thinking this must be a joke, but the cold stare suggested otherwise. Knowing the inevitable consequence of my response, I replied: “Most certainly: gallivanting is at the core of my being.” The job was indeed offered to a more sedentary individual.

My final experience was a casual conversation with a very senior scientist at a conference, who said: “Your problem, Russell, is that you are just too enthusiastic.” That was the final nudge across the Atlantic. For many of us it seemed that during the 1980s and early 1990s, the sustained momentum of UK scientific achievement during the previous 300 years had stalled, perhaps for good. The inherent enthusiasm and optimism by scientists, society and government for science was no longer expressed. Science had ceased to be seen as an engine of economic growth, or as a key agent of national identity and individual mobility.

Miles Cole feature illustration (26 September 2013)

Those who pursued research in the US in the late 1980s were profoundly changed by the experience. To enter an environment where enthusiasm, optimism and ambition were applauded and seen as key elements to success was liberating. Shortly after I arrived I had a formative lesson. A major grant application that I had written was not only rejected but cast into the outer darkness. My head of department asked to see me, and I prepared for a dressing-down. Instead, he said that I was right, that they were fools, and that I should submit the application to another funder. This I duly did. The same grant was then ranked top of the hundreds of submissions and was used subsequently as an example of how a research grant should be written. The lesson was clear: have confidence and keep kicking the door until the buggers let you in.

So why did I return to the UK in 1995? That was a tough decision, but family, my partner’s career and a deep emotional attachment to home were all part of the mix. I also had a sense that the scientific climate in the UK was slowly changing – driven, in part, by returning scientists who were confident about their profession and who were not prepared to tolerate old attitudes or hierarchies.

I did not expect a fanfare upon my return, but I thought I had something to offer. The funding agencies thought otherwise. My grant applications failed miserably. But, galvanised by my experience in the US, I kept kicking. On one occasion I submitted five different applications to the same committee for consideration at the same time. It worked: I had bombarded the buggers into submission – or at least exhausted them. High-impact papers and promotion followed. I fear, however, that such a blitzkrieg approach would not be tolerated today.

Maybe I am being a little naive, but in the past few years I have sensed a noticeable increase in optimism and enthusiasm for science across all sectors. Recent conferences have seemed more alive and my colleagues more optimistic about the capacity to deliver first-class science. The government has broadly maintained the science budget, despite there being no member of Cabinet with a pure science degree and despite science being potentially an easy target throughout the recession.

Meanwhile, my children’s generation seem to embrace science as part of their everyday culture, attending a science festival or museum as readily as they would a music festival or a play. The young are also turning increasingly to science at university. Will they experience a fulfilling future with their science degree? I think they will. And I have waited a long time to say this: Screw you, Mr Mitchell.

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