Scientific research is funded by charities, associations, and the government and flourishes on the back of society. In return, it is science that pushes society forwards. Despite this intrinsic symbiosis, scientists are not made celebrities. They are often not the centre of attention, and their world usually remains a mystery. But what does it actually mean to be a scientist? And what does scientific training have to offer?
The student walked down the same old corridor towards his supervisor’s office for a final discussion before his PhD thesis defence. This corridor has seen it all: the curiosity and the ambition, the frustration and the joy of research, the hard work and the growth. The student’s mentor had one last piece of advice for his important exam: “If you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know.”
This might seem trivial, but the pressure of always having an answer makes it easy to forget the value of not knowing. It is at those limits that one’s growth can continue, or as Milan Kundera, a famous Czech writer, said: “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.”
As a scientist myself, I became interested in what is the actual essence of being a scientist, and who better to ask than my fellow colleagues? So let’s dive into the minds of those who so often have ‘the questions’ and see what makes them tick - scientists interviewed.
The thrill and the frustration of the unknown
Questioning is at the heart of science. When asked about what their drive and motivation is for their work, scientists often answered: curiosity and excitement in the face of the unknown. “I also get a sense of exploration, I couple this [research] with an adventure,” says Zuzanna. As the media tends to portray scientists as the people having the answers, the reality of a scientist’s day-to-day life is the complexity of finding it. This discrepancy is important for both scientists and the public.
Aspiring scientists often enter research as top-of-the-class students, who are used to knowing the answer(s), straight into a world of questions and uncertainty. “I get frustrated all the time. At the beginning I was feeling bad about myself,” says Semihcan. As research is in constant progress, scientists have to also face the fact that the answers they work hard for are not timeless. “Unlike a set of recipes, scientific conclusions are prone to corrections and ever-changing advancements,” explains Michael. Thus, scientific papers end in a “Discussion” section which argues that the research findings “strongly suggest” rather than “prove” anything. For the scientist, it can be a hard personal journey, but also a key process in teaching humbleness and scepticism. These valuable qualities for the rigour and integrity of research often infiltrate the daily lives of scientists, making them cautious or uncertain to “speak up” about their knowledge.
For the public, this equally exciting and frustrating process of scientific research is often hidden or distorted. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. This unique situation exposed the mechanisms underlying research to the public, a public often wanting fast, straightforward answers for comfort. Instead, they found “speculations” (something scientists call hypotheses) and the intrinsic scientific “debate” that comes with it. This process drives science forward, but for the untrained eye, it can create chaos and distrust. As Michael remarked: “People want a story with a coherent narrative.” However, this cannot come from reading a draft in the making, and perhaps the solution is “more transparency [from the science community]”, believes Giovanni. This process can be “brutally ambiguous” and “intimidating” even for scientists as Zuzanna points out. A solution is “fact sorting, more informed estimates, and intuition”, all of which can only be achieved through training and investing the time. After all, as Morgane mentions: “it is an art to monitor our own judgement and remain objective”.
The miracle cure of a good question
As philosopher John Dewey said: “A problem well put is half solved,” and sometimes, investing the time and finding ways to best tackle the problem can be as valuable as the solution itself. This is one insight that the scientists brought up when asked about what they would like to inspire in the next generation. A recurrent theme in their replies was anchored around an innate trait that stands at the core of questioning: curiosity. Often underappreciated, a child’s curiosity is very valuable and easily replaced by “taught text-book-like answers”, explains Giovanni, “the teacher’s worst mistake is to give strong black and white answers. [Instead,] they should provide ideas and descriptions (…) Also, parents should give momentum to curiosity and not dismiss [children’s] questions.” In an era flooded with information and ever changing advancements, children need to be prepared to constantly adapt their notions and understanding to new contexts. This can only be achieved by arming this curiosity with critical thinking and structured, efficient searching techniques. As natural and intuitive as this might seem, it is a challenge for teachers, parents, and mentors to prepare the next generation in the art of adaptability and critical thinking. It is this very curiosity that drives scientists throughout their career and guides them by the scientific method. Firstly described in detail by Galileo Galilei in II Saggiatore (The Assayer) in 1623, this method, used in research to the current day, involves testing a question and being prepared to prove it right, wrong, or unable to prove it at all. Another colleague Baptiste goes on to describe the pleasure in teaching oneself: “as long as there is something more to understand, it is enjoyable.”
In this process, scientists point out that another pivotal concept that is worth carrying on is the value of frustration and even momentary failure, “a concept worth passing on,” explains Giovanni. From sports to scientific research and business, development of any sort requires frustration. While we are constantly getting used to receiving the final product or successful end result, the trial-and-error process often remains behind the scenes. Exposure to frustration, such as when struggling to understand new concepts, as a companion rather than an enemy, stands as proof for pushing oneself a little further into novelty every step of the way. Anna explains that it is important to teach those notions at an early stage because, with age, “excitement and questioning might get replaced by embarrassment of not having an answer, or simply people can become time-limited to be curious.”
Building the bridge with the public before walking on it
As curiosity and critical thinking go hand in hand, scientists feel that it is important, even part of their duty, to teach and inspire children and even adults. As a consensus among the scientists interviewed, time is the limiting factor when it comes to outreach activities, but this can sometimes be overcome with the right motivation and structure. “There are many ways and degrees to which scientists can engage in science communication,” explains Arthur, a researcher as well as founder of the science communication blog Softbites and organiser of the ComSciCon France workshop. He identifies two main driving sources for science outreach, confessing that he finds himself in the latter: “Sometimes it is the passion for teaching (…) Otherwise it is simply sharing how beautiful science can be.”
Science communication can be equally important as scientific research for scientists. “[It is] a test of one’s own understanding of the subject,” points out Michael. He adds that explaining science is “refreshing and a valuable reminder of the bigger picture”. It requires a deep understanding and a creative perspective to be able to explain complex scientific notions to children. “Breaking down the information for others, but also yourself is key,” says Semihcan. Also, “using analogies to transform abstract concepts into something tangible or visual” is what Baptiste applies most often when teaching science. Arthur explains that simplifying well without skewing the meaning of the scientific notions can be challenging and a valuable skill that scientists sometimes underestimate. “It becomes even more difficult when people already have a formed opinion and are in fact looking for validation as opposed to an explanation that might contradict their initial beliefs,” adds Morgane. “Fighting those cognitive biases can help you identify and guard against your own,” she further explains. As scientific questions become ever more complex and vast, scientific fields require interdisciplinary collaborations from biologists to computer scientists, as well as an efficient communication between practitioners and researchers. In those contexts, science communication skills such as simplifying, giving analogies and even addressing cognitive biases, become key factors in assuring the integration of skills within a common project.
These insightful conversations with my colleagues taught me that science is an important part of progress, and questioning is at the heart of science. Through both frustration and thrill it is important to nurture a scientific mindset in ourselves as well as the next generation. Not knowing the answer means identifying a question, and this is a perfectly good start to finding the way to knowledge.
This piece is based on a series of interviews with scientists. Many thanks to the participants who took the time to share their insight on how the scientific career and training shapes the scientist outside science, the parent, the favourite aunt or uncle, the brother or the friend he or she is to the non-scientists.
Morgane Besson (permanent researcher in neuroscience, Institut Pasteur)
Baptiste Colcombet-Cazenave (PhD student in molecular biology, Institut Pasteur)
Giovanni Diana (post-doctorate computational biology, Institut Pasteur)
Michael McGrath (post-doctorate in cell biology, Imagine Institute)
Arthur Michaut (post-doctorate in developmental biology, Institut Pasteur)
Zuzanna Piwkowska (post-doctorate in neuroscience, Institut Pasteur)
Semihcan Berat Sermet (post-doctorate in neuroscience, Institut Pasteur)
Anna Zych (PhD student in neuroscience, Max Planck Institute)