Last night I went to a family gathering in TCD and I don't think anyone there was more closely related to me, in a genes-in-common way, than, say, Michael D. Higgins, our noble President. But it was still my family. Just like at a family wedding or funeral, I met people who were part of my cousinage but whom I'd never actually met. And I also caught up with people who had disappeared off my radar for more than a decade as we met again - a little heavier, a little greyer, with more children or a new partner. The head of the family was hosting a party to celebrate the award she won last year for being the Best Mentor in All Ireland. And we, who had been made better people by her solicitous care and pushing to fulfill our potential, were there to say thanks. The official ceremony in Athlone last year was pinned on the lapel of a meeting of Science Foundation Ireland: where those who run this prestigious research support quango get to have some face-time those who have benefitted from the largesse. It was like a TED conference except that everyone's tab was being picked up by we-the-taxpayer. At TED, the audience cough up $5,000 a head for the privilege of meeting [other] charismatic creative people. As a humble and not notably successful foot-soldier of science, I would never have gotten past the door on my own scientific research record. I got my free dinner in November because I wrote a piece in The Blob which became part of the package that got Our Gaffer noticed.
Very interesting. In the midst of the canapes last night, one of my old work-mates turned to me and said "It wasn't me who told you to go back where you came from? I hope it wasn't!". It would be dishonest to say no, so I said "Yes". She was about as embarrassed as I was, which is to say not very much because we both have a sense of self that is on the positive side of the scale. But then, like the denizens of Lake Woebegone, pretty much everyone is on the positive side of that spectrum: we all re-write history and our recollection of events to put ourselves in a more positive light. I'm glad I wrote the original anecdote in quite neutral terms and didn't conjure her up as a malignant racist hag with one tooth and a pointed hat. It was quite redemptive to see her acknowledge the darker side of her nature: hoping that it wasn't true about herself but being honest enough to recognise that it might have been. It's really hard to change our true selves but the first step is to look in the mirror with clear eyes and some sense of critical appraisal.
I had a running battle all night at the reception, in the pub afterwards, continuing as we spilled out into the chilly street after midnight a little the worse for the dhrink. Battle isn't the right word, but 'discussion' doesn't capture the sense of ding-dong no holds barred exposure of the dark teatime of our souls. At issue was what we should do having recognised that there were better scientists in the World than we were. Was there any point in puttering along in the peleton of La Tour de Science? The metaphor of science being a race with only one winner is, frankly, repellent. And yes, we all acknowledge that there are lots of subsidiary prizes: the maillot à pois rouge is given to The King of the Mountain in the Tour de France; you get promotion if you publish enough papers. The reason why cyclists whistle round the corner in a group is that they can all go faster if they share the burden of pushing the air aside. Geese Branta canadensis in flight do it, and we're surely smarter than geese, you silly goose. We should be more collegiate and supportive and less competitive in science. We'll all go forward faster if we share our data and give our time to those younger or less fortunate than we are. We scientists have a certain talent, a lot of training and a mountain of accumulated knowledge, so we must continue put bricks in the wall of science for as long as our society will support us. It is a privilege but also a duty. Science is a way of knowing that has delivered much of what makes life good to live - indeed it has given life itself to billions of people who didn't get smallpox, malaria, polio or tuberculosis in this and the last century.
There are two points.
1) The stellar scientists, Nobel Prize winners; landers of the million euro SFI fish; the creators of papers in Nature and Science are all standing on the shoulders of giants. But they are also standing on heads and hands of quite ordinary people who are filling in the chinks left by the last Great Leap Forward. Unless we do that, there is no necessary-and-sufficient foundation for the next major foray into the unknown. My Institute's core business is to supply an essential part of this infra-structure; people who are a good pair of hands: who can run the instruments which generate the data - reliably, safely, and reproducibly; 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. Each of the Big Guns needs a team of people doing their job processing the samples, dreaming up new ways to do their work more efficiently, and being prepared to give that extra push if a deadline looms.
2) We have no idea where the next great breakthrough is going to come from. If we keep on pushing at the frontiers of something we care [bit of passion is allowable here] about and do the job with attention, and with accuracy, and with honesty but not with blinkers, we might, just might, be the one to discover the Secret of Life the Universe and Everything and today's stars will be eclipsed by our small but incandescent flame.