You Scratch My Back…

You scratch my backThere’s a stereotype that you often see in the movies or on TV.  The lone scientist working away in isolation on his (or her, but usually his) mad scheme.  Often they will be in an isolated location – maybe on an island, or even in a castle (looks dramatic, but the heating bills are horrendous) and usually with only one assistant (who might have some peculiar trait – maybe a deformity, maybe a questionable grip on sanity).

Now, obviously, Frankenstein is the most well known of this particular stereotype, but the same tropes pop up over and over in the media.  And you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s all bollocks.

For a start, scientists couldn’t conduct their work in the middle of nowhere.  Who would fund them?  (“You want this Research Council to fund your Foul, Unspeakable Study?  Yes that seems fine….But where will you do it?  On an island in the middle of the Atlantic?  Oh, I don’t think so – that’s outside our funding area.  We have some very nice facilities at a University near you, if that suits.  No?  Oh well”)

And how would they get the equipment?  You use a lot of consumable (plastic tubes, bags, disposable pipettes etc.)  How would they get them delivered? (“What’s the delivery address?  Oh, the “Secret Bunker” in the middle of the Sahara?  I think we may need to add an extra charge on that, Sir.”)

So, like I say:  Bollocks.

Also, another thing this stereotype gets wrong is the idea that scientists work in isolation.  Quite simply, that would never work.  Science is a communal thing.  Where do most scientists work?  Universities. And universities are communal and collegiate – they are about people working together collaboratively.

Collaboration is at the heart of the sciences, certainly the biological sciences.  Look at any research paper and you will (usually) see a long list of names, and more often than not, many of the authors will be based very far away geographically.

The reason for this is quite simple.  Over time, as the generations have passed, researchers have found that their work has become focused into ever more narrow areas of interest, so that an individual researcher may be an expert in one area, but be less knowledgeable about other areas – areas which, to an outsider, may seem to be very closely related.  So, I might have a lot of knowledge about certain biological pathways, eg. DNA damage responses, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert in DNA replication (I might know the generalities, but not the specifics).

So, in the same way, when conducting a study, it’s quite common to find your work starting to move into another area – one which you might not know that much about.  Or, you might need access to some specialised equipment that is only found in a few places in the country.   And so, you will need to work with other researchers.  Now, these other researchers are not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts, so there has do be something in it for them.  It could be that you can help them in their work, just as they are helping you with yours.  It could be that when you combine your separate sets of data together, it opens up new avenues of research (and therefore, potentially, new sources of funding).  And this is how scientific collaborations are formed.

This is why conferences are so useful.  You might go along to a conference in your area of research, but when you are there you will meet many other people, who may be working in a similar area, or they may be in your area, but coming from an angle you’ve never thought of.  Or, indeed, they might be in a totally unrelated area, but something they say makes a little lightbulb go “DING!” in the back of your head.

Either way, you’ll start to collaborate.  And that’s how science works.


…although, if anyone knows where I can find a deformed, psychotic minion to do my bidding, that would be great. They are waaaaay cheaper to employ than technicians…


Brown, R., Deletic, A., & Wong, T. (2015). Interdisciplinarity: How to catalyse collaboration Nature, 525 (7569), 315-317 DOI: 10.1038/525315a

AG McCluskey (2016). You Scratch My Back… Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


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