Published 29 June 2011 by Lou Woodley

Don’t make me eat my words – I’m a scientist!

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past month or so is whether scientists are “anti-social”, particularly with respect to adopting online tools and social media, many of which are designed to promote greater collaboration. Are scientists restricted by the research cycle, which encourages researchers to hold data close to their chest to avoid being scooped?  Does this emphasis on publication as the currency of science and the currently accepted measure of a person’s research reputation discourage sharing of data? (You can read more on this subject in write-ups from the recent Science Online NYC discussion panel on this topic).The issues of privacy, risk and reputation came up during the engaging conversations at Tuesday night’s academic dinner hosted by Lockheed Martin at Weinstube Frey in Lindau. These dinners are an opportunity for small groups of young scientists to spend an evening chatting with a Nobel Laureate and each other, supported by one of the meeting’s industry partners.

We spent a pleasant few hours enjoying a three course meal of beautifully presented food in the company of Professor Werner Arber and his wife. While we waiting for our meal, the discussion quickly touched on issues of privacy as the students quizzed Arber about how he’d found out that he’d won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of restriction endonucleases. Arber revealed that he and his wife had been spending a few days walking in the Alps at the time the winners were announced and so never received the infamous phone call. His wife did comment on how their phone was regularly ringing on their return though, with a lot of interest from the press. With some relief, she acknowledged that the treatment they received was much less aggressive and invading of their privacy that it might have been.

On discussing the solid gold medal that Werber received at his award ceremony, they explained that although there have been medals stolen from previous laureates (and you can’t ask the King of Sweden for a replacement!), there didn’t seem to be any point in hiding the medal away in a safe, so they’ve chosen to put it out on display in their home and enjoy it for as long as they can. This sums up one observation about privacy and security – we usually reveal only as much information, or let down our guard in other ways, as we perceive is “worth the risk”. Sometimes that’s a monetary consideration, other times an emotional or sentimental one and other times it’s about our personal or professional reputations.

From discussion of traditional media and security concerns, the conversation among the young researchers moved onto the digital environment. We began by comparing etiquette in different labs – does your boss send text messages or have your mobile phone number or even contact you via instant message? And if you’re not comfortable with the status quo, what can you do to reassert your privacy? What about dealing with sales reps who interrupt your work without making appointments? Sometimes they have a useful new product, but at other times, you might be working to a deadline and don’t need to hear about the latest improvements to a key piece of kit.  

We briefly explored whether any of the students had found social media or other tools helpful in their research, and while several of them were enthusiastic about the various mobile phone apps that enable them to keep up with the scientific literature on the move, none of them were really using social media sites for work. One researcher expressed concern about not wanting to have a permanent record online – whether that was on Facebook, which he hasn’t joined, or other social sites. “You don’t want something that you or your friends found amusing 7 years ago to come back to haunt you [in your professional life].”

And yet, despite these concerns about privacy and reputation, I think it’s important to remember that scientists and science communicators are not inherently “anti-social” as if this is a personality trait that correlates with the skills needed for good research. Post-publication, there is a lot of discussion of certain science topics, as evidenced by the growing number of visible science blogs, many of which are now hosted on more mainstream platforms such as the Guardian and Wired, as well as by scientific publishers. There have been many popular science books, and even the recently started Twitter journal clubs for scientific papers and another for science teachers (search the hashtags #twitjc and #sciteachjc). There are also regular “in-person” events such as science talks and discussion panels, at least in major cities.  Many scientists and the rising army of science communicators are aware of the need to engage a wider audience in their specialist areas, not just to receive or retain funding, but to promote wise choices on issues such as health or public safety.

Finally, one thing Tuesday night’s meal underlined is that science is a small world – we noted numerous similarities within our group, from places we’d lived and studied to cities we’d visited and even preferred airlines. This swopping of information and opinions often arises spontaneously during face-to-face conversation.  It’s just that we’re still exploring how to come to terms with how many of our science-related comments we want recorded versus how many we’d prefer remained merely as pleasant dinner conversations. After all, no one enjoys having to eat their words!

You can also read about what we discussed at last year‘s dinner, if you’re interested.

Lou Woodley