Let’s not start this all over again

I’m coming to the end of my research trip. I start heading home tomorrow and will finally get there on Sunday evening. Why I thought I would write this quick post, is that I had an email asking if I would highlight a post on the Nature Conservancy blog about the Spirit of Mawson Expedition. That’s it done. Given that enough has probably been said here about the expedition and that I’ll be travelling for the next couple of days, I would ask that if you have any comments about the actual expedition, that you make them there, rather than here.

However, since I’m actually away on a research trip myself, I thought I might add something here. Some of the criticism I’ve heard has been along the lines of : “why did they (the scientists) have to actually go there. Couldn’t someone else have gone. It all seems simple enough.” Well, I’m probably verging on being more senior than junior, and yet what I’ve been doing on my research trip has been pretty straightforward and simple. Someone more junior could easily have come instead of me and done an equally good (possibly better) job. So, why am I here?

There are a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m a scientist. This is what I do. My career path isn’t into management. It’s to keep doing science. Also, there isn’t always someone else. It takes quite a lot of time and effort to collect all the data for a major project, and you can’t just rely on the most junior people to do all the basic work. Another reason is that I’m part of a collaboration. I don’t want to get my name on papers without doing something. Actually taking my turn at collecting the data is part of contributing to the work of the collaboration. Sure, some may be happy simply managing more junior researchers, but that’s certainly not my preference. Additionally, as I think others have pointed out, it’s a crucial part of understanding the data. Even though I’ve been involved in this project from the beginning, sitting in a room and having someone explain how things work is no substitute to actually going and collecting some data yourself. You get to understand the calibrations and how the data is processed in a way that isn’t possible by simply reading manuals or talking to people. It’s also fun. Doing science is interesting and that’s why we choose this career. We also get to go to interesting places but, believe me, it’s not all fun and games and the novelty quickly wears off.

Anyway, I don’t really want this to turn into another lengthy discussion on the merits (or lack thereof) of the Spirit of Mawson Expedition. If you do want to express specific views about the expedition, you can comment at the blog I highlighted at the start of this post. It may well turn out that the expedition will be worthy of criticism. However, it’s certainly my opinion that criticising the scientists for wanting to go into the field to make their measurements and collect their data illustrates a lack of understanding both of how science works and what drives scientists to do what they do.

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16 Responses to Let’s not start this all over again

  1. As someone (very much junior) who does lab and fieldwork, I wholeheartedly agree! There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty – literally so as a geologist. It’s a big part of the draw for people to get into geology, ecology, climate science, etc. is being outdoors and going on an adventure. I’m sure if I was, for example, an economist, the thought of leaving my warm office for months in the field is probably horrifying 😉

  2. Ian Forrester says:

    I have a relevant anecdote to tell you about, well actually two, concerning field work and sampling. A number of years ago I was asked to summarize the presentations of the first half of a conference on the latest application of biotechnology (in the days when “biotechnology” had a much broader scope than it does today) to environmental science, bio-sensors, bio-remediation, bio-treatment etc. I started my talk by urging scientists to get out of their offices and get out into the field to see how the field work was progressing. One can get a great insight into what is happening, good or bad, from actual site visits using eyes ears and noses. I thought that was a quite innocuous urging.

    However, the next afternoon we were taken on a field trip to visit a number of sites, a creamery to see their biogas treatment for the whey, the local sewage treatment plant to see their newly installed RBC’s (rotating biological contactors) which they use to remove nitrogen and finished off at a micro-brewery to sample their products.

    As I was entering the bus the fellow in front of me stopped, turned round and berated me for suggesting that he should get out of his office and do some field work. I was shocked.

    The second anecdote concerns sample handling and collection. I was expecting some samples from an environmental company to do some microbiological work on and I told my contact to put them immediately in ice and keep them cold, get then to my lab as quickly as possible so I could ensure that they were stored properly. It was Friday afternoon and frequent phone calls til I was told that they would be coming in later in the evening. I told my contact to transfer them from the cooler to a fridge and I would collect them Monday morning. He said that he would be at a meeting but it would be OK for someone to come and get him.

    I arrived and got him out of his meeting. I apologized for getting him out to which he responded that it was a waste of time meeting anyway since it was on sample handling. We went to his office and he told me that he had forgotten to transfer the samples to the fridge but he assured me that they would be OK. I laughed out loud when I saw the sample jars floating around in the melted ice, some of which were now full of water since the lids had not been properly tightened. The moral of this is that sampling and sample handling are very very important. There is no point in having an expensive and sophisticated analytical instrument if the samples are either incorrectly sampled or they are not handled properly. Many times I have found that it is the low man on the totem pole who is sent out to gather samples with no proper instructions or supervision.

    Sorry for the rant but I am a great proponent for scientists getting out of their offices and into the field.

  3. Rachel says:

    My father is a University scientist and although he is 67 or 68 (I’m not sure :-)), he is still working full-time and he still goes on overseas research trips. Quite frequently in fact. He absolutely loves it and wouldn’t have it any other way and his trips are to places that are not exactly tourist destinations. They certainly wouldn’t be on my list of interesting places to go.

    He has always taken his students on shorter trips closer to home as well. One time, about 15 years ago, I can remember him telling me about a group of students he had taken on a short day trip. They went by bus and on the bus he passed around a sheet of paper for students to add their name to so that he had a list of who had gone and who needed to hand in an assignment about it. At a later date, during a lecture, he announced that one student had failed to hand in their assignment. This student was called, he announced during the lecture, “Bart Simpson”.

  4. AnOilMan says:

    As long as your trip doesn’t result in a full page spread in Physicists Gone Wild….

    Good engineering is the same. It’s important to see and understand how a product is used. Good engineering is good observation. If you are working with other groups it’s important to establish a good relationship. The list goes on. You don’t need much of it, but you do need it.

    Curious but… How do people here feel about government sanctioned censorship?
    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-silence-of-the-labs

  5. @AnOilMan,
    I don’t know much about what’s going on in Canada with respect to the muzzling of scientists, but if even only some of it is true, it’s extremely concerning. I believe that some scientists in the UK also have to be slightly careful in that if you’re formally a civil servant then I think you’re prohibited from publicly making political comments. It may subtler than that, and maybe I’m simply wrong. At the moment, academics in the UK are reasonably free to do as they wish but I have been lead to believe that my university (in order to satisfy some employment law – or at least that’s what they say) has formally removed the right to academic freedom. Again, I haven’t checked if this is indeed true, but I did hear that it was likely to happen. So, I think there is a tendency – even in universities here in the UK – to see academics as employees who should behave in a way that suits the business model.

  6. Louise says:

    I have been a scientist employed directly by the government (in a defence research lab) and we were absolutely not allowed to speak or to publish without our papers and presentations being thoroughly vetted. Of course, a lot of that was because it was defence work but most of the work was not at all classified, just potentially commercially sensitive.

    For example, I worked on night vision systems for dismounted infantry. Is it better to be fully dark adapted (which takes up to 30 mins and can be lost in a flash), use a monacular image intensifying system so that the soldier can maintain dark adaptation in one eye and raise his rifle sight to that eye, or to use a binocular image intensifier so that depth perception when moving around in the dark is available but the rifle can no longer be brought to the eye? Whilst studying the basic set of questions, lots of other variables such as weight of device, field of view, nature of task, degree of darkness, spectral sensitivity of the system, etc.

  7. BBD says:

    AnOilMan

    Curious but… How do people here feel about government sanctioned censorship?

    Same as when the latter Bush administration did it to Hansen and others.

    Bad.

  8. BBD says:

    Louise

    Defence tech research is one thing; climate science (eg Hansen) is another. Especially as what happened at GISS violated NASA’s own protocols for public dissemination of research findings.

  9. Eli, you just needed to ask 🙂

  10. AnOilMan says:

    The agony of Frank Luntz.
    http://www.desmogblog.com/2014/01/12/recommended-reading-agony-frank-luntz-atlantic

    Apparently he’s depressed after having instilling so much decisive politics in America.

  11. Rattus Norvegicus says:

    Shhh, you’re not supposed to say that science is interesting and fun. It is boring. Dreadfully boring. And drudgery. No satisfaction in work like that, is there?

  12. tonylurker says:

    One more comment about field work. People often don’t realize that science is a very opportunistic endeavor. You don’t always have the option of performing the perfect experiment, and sometimes you just have to get what data you can get when you can get it. I have often “piggybacked” on other group’s field tests to get data for my research. This often meant that I didn’t have much control over all of the conditions, or what was done, but I was able to set up my gear and get some very useful data. Getting something imperfect now was often preferable to getting a perfect experiment done years from now (or more realistically, given funding, never). It’s easy to sit back and nit pick whether there was a better way to do something, but often times, the real world makes better infeasible.

  13. Mike McClory says:

    As an engineer who spends about a third of my time out in customers labs I certainly see big differences when I talk to the designers and senior engineers who spend most of their time in the factory. I’ve had many an arguement when discussing modifications or features that are needed or those that simply don’t do what our customers want. One of my favourite sayings is when I’m on-site I represent the company, in the factory I represent the customer. It’s absolutely vital to get out and look at what’s happening.

  14. AnOilMan says:

    I’m an engineer, and we really have the same story.

    In designing drilling sensors, our specs are, 20000psi, 200C, 40g continuous shock, with up to 1000g shock peaks. The batteries cost $1500, and it costs $10,000 to change them. There are many schools of thought on how to solve the problems therein, but invariably it requires mastery of mechanical engineering and electronics on a first principles level. You can’t just ‘follow the app note’ to solve a problem.

    After all your best test efforts testing, you have to go to field. Its not like oil rigs are sitting around waiting for you. You need friends to lend you time on their rigs, and put up with a lot of scrawny geeks. These are lethal workplaces, that cost so much that you can’t afford to stop them running. So you have to be on a real oil well.

    Then the curious data comes in. Quite often the aforementioned conditions are so harsh that prototypes fail. This makes debugging doubly hard. Was that a bad reading? Was that a design flaw? Was that equipment damage? Was that equipment design failure? And oh please oh please oh please could we do a trip out and change the batteries?

    Lastly no one will buy your products unless you can actually document that they work in practice.

  15. nnoxks says:

    Related to this post, and rather amusing, is the latest update on the arctic sea ice at the NSIDC (National Snow & Ice Data Center) website:

    “Daily sea ice growth rates were variable during December. By the end of the month, ice extent remained below average in most of the far north. In Antarctica, ice extent remained above average and access to the continent by ship has been more difficult than normal.”

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