According to no less than Albert Einstein, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
A (questionable) aphorism suggesting I might consider my now curtailed efforts as the very thesis of research. Is it easier to be modest when you’ve achieved great things, or when the fruits of your endeavours have failed to ripen? Either way, there’s little to be modest about; yet the modest are often tempted to look to lay credit/blame elsewhere.
A few months down the line since my leaving the lab, the orbital clocking of another 587,322,000 miles has re-set; the bankers get their “WAITT” bonuses; and, rather than contemplate ‘Biblical plagues’ of dead birds precipitating manna-like succour to those rapturously seeking some supernatural portent at this over-signified time of year, my retrospection evolves, such that I still find myself, although I do not miss the bench, reflecting on how it petered out.
In his Bad Science book, Ben Goldacre discusses Austin Bradford-Hill’s guidelines for assessing causality: the relationship between an exposure and an outcome (I won’t list them here; see @ p. 94 in the paperback). By these criteria, I was practicing the caliginous art just fine. After exhausting some dead ends, and working up and applying an assay system, and readjusting for my errors, and repeating (and repeating, and repeating… ), I consider I had something worth following up (I won’t bore you with tiresome details here and now, but anybody out there want to know about culturing human germ cells? I’d be happy to provide info/tips/suggestions). Elsewhere in the book, Goldacre also emphasises the responsibility of scientists to publish their data. Quite right. Couldn’t agree more. And here I feel – if not plead – guilty. But not as a career-preserving paranoiac. No; in my (self-rationalising) defence, reams of negative data are: (i) difficult to get published, and (ii) of little value (unless they constitute a counterfactual; although I realise the flaw in that statement). Rather than putting out recycled stuff that adds no extra information, or making unverified claims, as ‘inexplicably’ crop up from time to time in certain journals, I was after something novel to add to the literature. Not paradigm-contradicting revolution; but something informative, valid, useful. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?
According to the terms of my ‘Compromise Agreement’, I am not allowed to publish any criticism of my estranging employer (which, in effect, that sentence constitutes, doesn’t it?) The same document also forbids me from honing that tough piece of white coal into publishable shape. Because – get this – if I’d been made involuntary redundant upon cessation of a short-term contract, I might have been permitted continued access to research facilities as an
exploited unpaid ‘visitor.’ But, as I was ‘awarded’ ( award? Like it is an achievement?!) one year’s salaried voluntary ‘severance’, my ties are, well, severed: I am not allowed back, paid or unpaid, for two years. I’m sure there must be some logic at work there. Nevertheless, institutional science is a cruel, fickle beast. If I’d walked a few years back, when I was newly-papered and freshly, prestigiously funded, I’d have had something to feign modesty about. Not so now, when the papers have staled. Should have been a city banker: scupper up a nation’s economy, keep the job, and get the bonus. ( Nah. No I shouldn’t. )
So, I’m off for a while. My departure (I mean, geographical, not virtual – whether I’ll continue this self-involved scratching will sort itself out… but it will be, at best, erratic,) has, due to conspiring circumstances, been delayed. But I need to remove one among the mixture of tastes in my mouth while I still can.
Far be it from me to paraphrase ‘Albert the Great.’ But, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called life, would it?”
New Year’s resolution? Go easy on the adverbs!