…it applies to life and it applies to tackling science. It was the phrase picked out by one tweeter from the speech I gave at the University of Exeter a couple of weeks ago when receiving, with some nervousness, an honorary ScD. It was a phrase I used to describe the fact that many of them, as new graduates, might be heading off into a future of great uncertainty, without a job and probably with substantial debts weighing down on them. But the fact that they didn’t necessarily know what the future meant now, didn’t mean that the future was therefore bleak. I was trying to reassure them that even successful people had often been uncertain about both short and long term goals, and almost invariably things would have turned out differently for them from their aspirations at some, possibly many, points along the way. But, the lack of definite knowledge about how things would pan out shouldn’t paralyse any of the new graduates them with fear; in other words the future still was, at least potentially, their oyster. I have no idea whether that was how they interpreted that phrase, but with luck something of the spirit was conveyed to them at least.
However, when it comes to tackling scientific research, it seems to me that ‘uncertainty is not terminal’ is just as applicable and a phrase worth bearing in mind. Moreover, anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable coping with uncertainty is almost certainly going to have a hard time of coping with research. That transition between being fed ‘facts’ to digest and regurgitate for exams and going off and chasing the unknown is a key transition point in the development of a young researcher. If it doesn’t happen, then there will be a problem.
Liking – or at least being prepared to live with – uncertainty is perhaps just another way of saying one is insatiably curious. And that of course is the hallmark of a scientist (although not uniquely so; a recent conversation with a portrait artist indicated that she too believed curiosity was intrinsic to her discipline because she always needed to be experimenting and observing in order to capture her subject accurately. Sounds a very familiar skillset to a scientist). If you don’t want to explore the unknown, and if you can’t do it with confidence, then a scientific research career may not be the right thing for you.
But scientists have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is inevitably going to be at a tender age. One of the most important things to ensure, as the Primary School National Curriculum Review proceeds, is that we do not squeeze out space in the curriculum to allow the natural curiosity in the young to be developed. As the draft curriculum stands, there are encouraging signs that this is recognized, with an emphasis given to the idea of ‘working scientifically’ as something to be centrally embodied in the early years programme of work, this to include:
- Observing closely using simple equipment
- Performing simple tests
- Identifying and classifying
- Recording findings in various formats.
These are good basic skills that are so central to later development, and yet can be done in straightforward ways with minimum equipment: the school grounds provide ample opportunity to carry out basic explorations on what would once have been called nature studies, but now probably rejoices in the name of bug (or creepy-crawly)-counting. Of course this could also be done using plant studies, but somehow children seem more attracted to things that can squirm and squelch. It can also be done comparing objects that sink or float; or considering which materials break under a given load or dissolve in water. There are so many simple experiments to be done which a teacher can devise, as long as they also have the confidence to set such things up and then handle excited children’s queries.
Confidence is key. One of the current problems in primary schools is how few teachers have scientific qualifications (not necessarily a degree, as there are subject knowledge enhancement courses which can be taken to provide the necessary background knowledge for those without a scientific degree). As yet, there is no formal definition of a primary school science specialist, though there is a push to produce such a definition. However, looking simply at the percentage of those who go into primary school teaching with a STEM degree as a crude estimate, it turns out to be only a dismal ~ 3% of those going into teacher training, according to data from the Royal Society. The concern is that if teachers themselves aren’t comfortable with enquiry of an open-ended sort, they may turn children off science very early on. This problem will then perpetuate through the system, providing (as has been the case for many years) an inadequate supply of the teachers of tomorrow who have a STEM background creating a vicious circle.
So, having an overall education system that facilitates, indeed encourages, curiosity, inquiry and careful observation all the way through school is vital for the health of science. The curious thing is that even for those students who have been fired up, chosen to pursue science at degree level and beyond, uncertainty in their experiments can still seem very scary. I have seen this both with undergraduates attempting final year projects and once, rather unnervingly (for me, never mind for them), with a PhD student, who came to me with excellent credentials. However, when they’d got past the first few months of learning the techniques and methodologies, they seemed floored. How could they construct a set of experiments without knowing for sure what answer they should be expecting? This particular student felt unable to design any experiment because the answer was not a foregone conclusion. This was a problem I absolutely had not seen coming: a bright student who simply couldn’t cope with the unknown, but was smart and capable of seeing their way through tricky paper problems of the kind found in exam papers. Nevertheless, with hard work on both our sides, this student satisfactorily got through their PhD, and then stayed in science, but working for a scientific consultancy where, I assume, they found the questions asked much less open-ended.
So, for this year’s batch of fresh graduates from any discipline facing an uncertain job market and career prospects, as well as the scientists setting out on their own voyages of discovery, I would say again that simply because you can’t stare into a crystal ball and know for sure what’s coming next is no reason to be paralysed by fear.