The next generation: BT Young Scientist Exhibition

What can scientists learn from schoolchildren?

A few weeks ago, the 55th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition was held in the RDS. Children from all over Ireland prepared and showcased their research and the work was amazing; Adam Kelly, the 17-year old prizewinner of this year, did some interesting work on quantum computing, a field which is only just taking off – most of us don’t know what quantum computing even is. Although undergraduate students have access to labs, equipment, and knowledgeable professors, it is difficult not to be envious of the BT Young Scientists: their freedom and the enjoyment they get out of the process. But there is nothing stopping us from doing the fun projects these school children do, other than time and attitude.

Children are good scientists because they are still learning about the world in general; they are curious and without any prior assumptions. One programme which inspires many young people is MythBusters – a show in which a group of plucky amateur scientists and engineers tested urban myths and movie stunts by recreating them under controlled conditions. One of the presenters, Adam Savage, had a saying on the show which a lot of people have hung on to: “The only difference between science and screwing around is writing it down.” It’s not very sophisticated but it makes for a practical motto.

My final year project has recently reached completion. The last day in the Biomedical Sciences Institute was spent feeding plant extractions into the flow cytometer, which is mainly used by the immunology research groups. Flow cytometers are very nice machines; you offer up the sample in a tube, watch it get sucked up, and the kit works the particles down into a single unit flow. It excites the particles – most often cells, in this case, nuclei – with lasers of different wavelengths, then it records and sorts the particles according to their responding fluorescence. This allows the design of all kinds of experiments, including DNA quantification, which is what the project was doing. The wonderful facility manager Barry Moran was watching the screen light up with messy data points as the first sample was added. He turned to me with a grave face and informed me that this might not work. No one had put plant material in this machine before; besides, plant cells are bigger than animal cells, the cell walls get in the way, and they are full of pigments that excite and confuse the signal. This should have made me concerned and frustrated, but it didn’t. It was exciting not knowing what was going to happen. It induced a stereotype-fulfilling cackle. It’s a similar feeling to when the idea crossed my mind to put a 200 million year-old fossil into the flow cytometer. This obviously did not come to fruition, because even I know that there would be no DNA remaining after that amount of time, and that the fossils were very difficult to acquire. But a little part of me really wanted to anyway, just to see what happened.

This is the feeling that so many scientists fall in love with and continue to work for: the feeling of always being on the edge of a new piece of human knowledge, no matter how small; the question of “what if?”; the thrill of messing about. It’s a rare type of research that most professionals don’t have a chance to do. It’s a struggle to find the time, and the headspace, to pursue these sorts of shenanigans when there are promises to deliver on, research grants to chase, and pitches to make. But so often these are the most entertaining and rewarding projects – the weird ideas that pop into your head. One of my last supervisors always seemed most excited about his side projects. We would go over the progress of the main research, and when the meeting was “officially” over we would retreat to the tea room to scribble his most recent tangent on napkins and scrap paper. Every scientist has these little ideas; what if I just put this on that? What if I just clone that into these? Then it’s sneaking them in along the way, keeping them saved up for a rainy day, or waiting to shoehorn them into the next grant which sounds even distantly related.

Perhaps there is so much excitement and envy around the BT Young Scientist competition because there may be something fundamentally wrong with how we are conducting professional research. I think that academic inflation and academic competition have increased the pressure for research scientists to find what they were looking for. There isn’t room for failure, and that may be a dangerous position to find ourselves in. The way that much research funding works is that a grant for a period of one to five years is offered by an institute or government body, with certain expected results described in the grant call. We look for these results and if we fail to find them, we look again and again until they, or something close enough to them, manifest themselves. This is a fine way of working if you are designing a program of required efficiency, or are streamlining a protocol, or are building a system like a solar cell or a plane. But it can become an unfortunate complication when it comes to the natural sciences or physics, which are less about building and more about carefully observing in innovative ways, then trying to make sense of those observations. If you keep looking for the results you want in these cases, it is easy to fall into the trap of positive confirmation bias. This pressure and competition have resulted in a faster, more intense culture of research and innovation, which in turn has lead to what is being called the “replication crisis”.

Replication and reproducibility are core tenets of the scientific method. As our professors are always telling us, if another research group can’t pick up and repeat your research, it doesn’t count for much. This is in part because of the universal and communal nature of good science, but is also a test for the reliability of the research. However, in a poll conducted by the leading journal Nature in 2016, approximately 70% of 1,500 scientists had failed to reproduce at least one other scientist’s experiment, and 50% had failed to reproduce one of their own. On top of this, a study published last year in Nature Human Behaviour attempted to replicate 21 social and behavioural science papers, with only 13 of these being successfully replicated. Academic competition has lead to frequent relocation for postgraduates, unpaid work in the form of internships for undergraduates, and short-term contracts for teaching staff. The pressure to perform has forced out those who are not socially or economically privileged to make these sacrifices, and now also appears to be jeopardising the integrity of some research. Peer-reviewed research published in 2009 showed that 2% of scientists surveyed admitted to falsifying work at least once, with 14% admitting to personally knowing someone who did.

Perhaps the buzz that kicks up around the BT Young Scientist festival, especially on social media, can be attributed in part to research jealousy. The event is a reminder to everyone of how science should feel, be practised, and be celebrated. It should be fun, and there should be room to fail.