Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Monday, 9 January 2006

Science seen under the right conditions

By Dr Daniel Glaser

Einstein lookalike under a bike stunt (IoP)
Science sometimes tries to be cool - but old stereotypes endure
Professor Christopher Frayling is head of the Royal College of Art, but he's recently been conducting scientific experiments.

He's been going into primary schools and asking the pupils to draw a picture of a scientist.

Examining the sketches afterwards, he is surprised to discover that the children consistently draw images from a bygone age long before they were born: with wild hair, lab coat, staring eyes, coke-bottle glasses, a withered hand; in some cases they've even written the word "MAD" with an arrow pointing at the scientist.

Sir Christopher has replicated this study several times and concludes that, "in the tests I've done about 80 to 90% are mad scientists with one of more aspects of the iconography of the 1960s alive and well".

The stereotype of the unhinged and dangerous scientist isn't only held by school children.

He believes that this is part of a "funny sort of schizophrenia in the public understanding of science".

On one hand there is a desire to believe in scientific progress, particularly in the field of medicine, and an admiration of everything that science has made possible; on the other a suspicion that the scientists themselves are "Mad, bad and dangerous to know".

Science vogue

The image of the mad scientist is a stereotype which reflects a sense of anxiety amongst the general public about the way science impacts on their daily lives, whether in the form of vaccine scares, nuclear power or GM food.

This anxiety stems, perhaps, from a sense that science affects people in ways they can't control. And yet they may take comfort from the fact that it's a two-way street.

Public support or public hostility towards a given area of science does in fact filter through to the daily lives of scientists.

Glaser (Image: M.Glaser)
The image of the mad scientist, free to do his own thing in a laboratory near you, is a far cry from the reality of scientific life, which is dependent on rather more mundane concerns
Daniel Glaser
The idea of scientific "fashion" - what's considered cutting-edge at any given moment - plays a major role in the granting of research funding, which is the life blood of science.

This is a source of frustration for Chris Shaw from Kings College London, for example, who works on motor neurone disease, a disease which kills more people in the UK every year than either multiple sclerosis or HIV/AIDS, but which receives a fraction of the research money compared to those more high-profile diseases.

Chris Shaw puts it down to the fact that the victims of motor neurone disease are often older and die quicker; they are simply less visible.

Since grants last only a few years, scientists can spend a great deal of their time chasing funds rather than actually doing science.

The demands of the system keep a few top scientists out of conventional academia altogether.

The old way

Steve Grand is an internationally recognised roboticist, renowned for building a baby monkey robot affectionately named "Lucy", but he carries out his research in a garden shed in rural Somerset.

Grand believes that the grant system actually slows down scientific progress: "I wish we could go back to the days of patronage: somebody very wealthy out there who wanted to know stuff but couldn't do it themselves, so would give me the money to do it for them, and that would be wonderful."

Lucy, the robot with a brain (BBC)
Lucy - not your average robot
His science has an originality and vision that eludes laboratories with hundreds of times more money, but Steve and Lucy lead a hand to mouth existence.

There is a danger that people get grants because they're good at getting grants, not just because they're good at science.

There's another way in which public anxiety about science doesn't quite reflect reality, namely, the process by which science is regulated and evaluated.

Peer review is the yardstick by which all science is measured, and it determines whether research gets published or not - the preoccupation of every scientist.

Being published is not just a question of who you know, or even whether a particular journal editor likes your work.

Mundane reality

Every research paper has to be approved by two or three anonymous fellow scientists before it can be accepted as part of the scientific canon.

Occasional rumours circulate about skulduggery and unethical behaviour by reviewers. For example, Richard Templar of Imperial had a paper repeatedly blocked by an anonymous reviewer.

He recalls: "One has suspicions that the referee who doesn't like your research is actually just holding your piece of work and trying to replicate it in their own lab so that they can publish before you."

But such stories seem to be the exception. Most scientists regard peer review as the "least worst" option, and they expect to spend a significant proportion of their time reviewing the work of competitors.

So the image of the mad scientist, free to do his own thing in a laboratory near you, is a far cry from the reality of scientific life, which is dependent on rather more mundane concerns.

But there is a way in which the image of the mad scientist does contain a grain of truth. Science is a creative business, and sometimes the results can be unpredictable; even explosive in more ways than one.

The moment

The passion for discovery is a common thread in all scientific careers, and it's often the sudden euphoric flashes of discovery that keep scientists going.

Cornelia de Moor of Nottingham University remembers the night she cracked one important aspect of how frogs' eggs mature.

"There was nobody else in my lab, I was so frustrated I couldn't tell anybody, I just went around the corner trying to find somebody to tell, I just grabbed anybody that I knew shouting 'Do you know what I've just discovered?'".

Photo of a woman in a lab
There is reward for those who persevere
It's true that these moments are few and far between; less than half of those who complete a doctorate in science go on to become research scientists, and often the explanation is surprisingly prosaic: it's just hard to get the experiments to work enough of the time.

Oliver Choroba, a former research fellow at Cambridge who left science to become a school teacher, regards his old lab records as "notebooks from hell more or less, because every single notebook has a lot of disappointment and frustration in it".

The everyday business of science is more routine than the student dreams might suggest. But when the Eureka moments do happen, they are priceless.

As Richard Templar of Imperial College London puts it: "All of a sudden, you've discovered something that nobody else understands; its like being an explorer and discovering a new continent - it's the most wonderful feeling."

Dr Daniel Glaser is a neurobiologist from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. In a two-part series for the BBC, he takes a journey around Britain's labs and scientific institutions to find out how science really works, and what goes on behind the white coat.

Under Laboratory Conditions, a two part series is broadcast at 2100 GMT on Wednesday, 11 & 18 January, on BBC Four.

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