Science adapting through history

26 May 2020

Interview with 

Jane Gregory, University of Cambridge

OLD-CLOCK

an old style alarm clock, faded with time

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Science, and scientists, those in the various disciplines from biology to astrophysics, from mathematics to chemistry, have all had to adapt to the “new normal” of the coronavirus pandemic. From working from home to having to find new and quicker ways to communicate solutions, there have been some big changes. But, as Adam Murphy has been finding out, the world of science knows a thing or two about adapting and changing.

Adam - Given the current crisis, scientists have had to go through the same measures as the rest of us and are now working, at least physically speaking, alone. This wouldn't have been a problem to scientists of the past who nearly always worked alone, but how did we get from there to here? I spoke to Jane Gregory, Programme Director of Science Communication at the Institute of Continuing Education in Madingley, about this shift and how science works.

Jane - The kinds of people we now call scientists didn't really start working together until the 17th century. So before then if you were a person with special knowledge about nature, it was considered important to be on your own. There was a sense that by isolating yourself with nature, you could somehow come to understand it more deeply than if you were living among people. Now in the 16th century, very wealthy people would see the value in having these experts to hand, not sending a messenger out into the woods to look for the herb lady. So they might set up a little shed or cave or something on their estate, and have their wise man or wise woman to hand.

Adam - But working like this couldn't last as the world of science was about to find out.

Jane - Now all of this came together in the middle of the 1600s when, stimulated by the experience of the English Civil War, thinkers started to come together as a way of seeing beyond petty political differences, and with the founding of the Royal Society, which is still around today of course, scientists explicitly asserted that it was better to work together and share information than to work apart. So it became very important for scientists to communicate with each other and to work in groups.

Adam - These days things are so radically different from what they used to be, that even suggesting a scientist only works alone has some pretty negative repercussions.

Jane - And nowadays it can be quite an insult to a scientist for someone to say: "Oh well he or she works on their own." It's considered to be not just ungenerous, but it's also considered to be a way in which your data might not be reliable. You might have something to hide, possibly be cheating. So now a scientist doesn't work on their own, and the very few people who do it are considered to be perhaps a bit eccentric, a bit unreliable. If you want to apply for money to do research, one of the very first things you have to do on the application is to state your group, you have to put what university you work at or what company you work at or what societies you're a member of. You have to be part of the gang in order to do scientific research.

At the moment we’re in this rather odd position of being physically separated but virtually in touch. So we’re in the same communities we always were. And although scientists were quite slow to pick up on social media, for example, compared to other professions, and other social groups, they do now operate pretty well in a virtual sphere. Not only that, but what they’re doing in the virtual sphere is often open and accessible to everybody else. So it may be that by making this move, scientists have actually become more open as a community, as well as maintaining their connectedness, within their professional world.

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