Nature Journal Club

Lee Turnpenny

University of Southampton, UK

A stem-cell researcher considers an accusation of dullness.

How might hard-working scientists react to an accusation that ‘modern scientists’ are ‘dull’, as is provocatively postulated in a March editorial of the non-peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses (B. Charlton Med. Hypotheses 72, 237–243; 2009). With offence? Humour? Ambivalence? Or, perhaps, in response to a jeremiad bemoaning our apparent insufficient intelligence and creativity, we might retort, “So what? Tell us something we don’t know.”

Because, it seems to me, most working scientists have either long since accepted that they are not of the ‘revolutionary’ type exemplified by greats such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, or never strived to be. Gaining and retaining employment in academia is hard enough. Yes, we are of the persevering and conscientious ‘normal’ type — if we weren’t, nothing would get done.

We know there is too much bureaucracy. And yes, there is a lot of repetitive, boring, tiresome, problematic work to be done that is unlikely to shift any paradigms (yet), but important nonetheless. Whether or not somehow creating more windows of opportunity for would-be geniuses possessed of the requisite levels of selfishness and creativity would lead to significant changes in direction is debatable. But the drudge is always necessary in a multidisciplinary collaborative enterprise.

It’s not that scientists are dull per se. Rather, instead of being the ‘clever crazy’ type that might belong in an institution, we labour in an institutionalized occupation that demands we play by certain rules. We know we’re not going to change the world, but we like to think we can contribute to the sum of knowledge. Providing we can first convince our peers. If it was easy, everybody would do it. One might add, complaining that modern science can be dull, although valid, isn’t exactly a ‘revolutionary’ idea. Tell us something original, eh?

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