Essay:The biggest obstacle to science today

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I've worked in commercial analytical laboratories for over 10 years now, microbiology at first but currently in my field of preference; chemistry. I'd hardly call the work undertaken hard science, most the time it's running mindless, repetitive tasks; pipetting fixed volumes into Petri dishes or mixing chemicals of well established strengths and measuring the outcomes on calibrated machinery. However, regardless of the low level of knowledge needed to undertake the tasks, science is still being done and the result published for customers still needs to be backed up with knowledge of the science involved to show that whilst a figure can be given, there is understanding within the service provided that we know what we're talking about.

Laboratories like this are very common, when I first started out in the profession most food factories (in the UK) of a reasonable size had an on-site microbiology lab and quite usually a lab for testing packing materials and raw ingredients. Even if they didn't, there are a large number of contracting laboratories offering analytical services to fulfil a number of legislative requirements, especially within the environmental sector.

Because of the limited ability needed to perform the most basic of tasks, qualification levels for entry level positions are low, usually some qualifications in mathematics and English and have, historically, attracted people of a certain demographics - women in their mid to late thirties whose children are now in secondary (high) school and young people fresh out of university with no laboratory experience but a well earned BSc. The student types only last a couple of years, once they have lab experience under their belt they either get a job in a 'proper' research laboratory or become disillusioned with the dull, repetitive work usually undertaken in labs and move onto something else. The ex-housewife types stick on with it; they're not looking for much in their work and the ability after a while to perform tasks without thinking too much leaves plenty room for socialisation (and labs can be a very friendly place to work). In every lab I've worked in there is a 'hardcore' of staff who've been there for 15+ years and the young, fresh types who enter and leave within 2 years.

This arrangement of demographics means that those who get promoted upwards are those who know the techniques involved in their work, are familiar with the types of samples and their typical results and have established rapport with the non-technical parts of the company (upper management and administration). It's not even unknown for promotions to follow after long service, simply to retain the experience gained over that time. Don't get me wrong, the experienced staff know their work, they can quote the methods flawlessly and their knowledge of what results to expect from certain sample types is invaluable when it comes to spotting results that are non-typical.

However, what this results in is a caste of middle management, responsible for the progression in the laboratory, who have no concept of the underlying science behind the work undertaken. But to quote the Matrix "...they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys." This is especially prominent when it comes to matters regarding statistics and calculating uncertainties, a subject I still struggle with and am completely incapable of expressing just how wrong their thinking is.

So, why is this an issue? Why do I claim this is one of the biggest threats facing science? Well, simply put, this is the hidden side of science. This is the science that isn't glamorous, popular or exciting, it's the science that provides you with assurance that your food isn't contaminated with e-coli, or the land on which the play park is built isn't contaminated with heavy metals, or that the nearby nuclear power plant is sticking to its assigned discharge limits. When things are running as they've always ran, this isn't an issue, methods are followed, results are issued and everyone seems happy. But then there's this thing called accreditation.

Accreditation is what gives analytical laboratories their clout, their respectability, their honour. Without it, a laboratory results are worthless, as useful as a chocolate teapot. It's important for a lab to gain, and most of all, retain accreditation. Bizarrely, when it comes to auditing for accreditation, whilst it's in the best interested of the auditors to find some things to note (otherwise it would seem like they're not looking) it's not always a good thing to challenge things too much. After all, there's a number of accreditation bodies in the UK and whilst everyone wants the gold standard (UKAS), there are alternatives. So auditors make a few points but rarely go to the extreme of dropping accreditation from a laboratory. Even if a method or technique is flawed, the offending lab gets a number of months to sort it out and it's all good. When all's done and dusted, the accreditation is more concerned with the lab doing what they say they do, and the results are reproducible and reliable.

With a level of middle management who don't understand the science and an accreditation system that's geared towards laboratories gaining repeatability as opposed to actually putting out good science, there is a big gap in the knowledge. When someone joins the laboratory with a reasonable level of knowledge, and attempts to alter the way things are done to reflect a more scientific mindset, there is a well established reluctance to change, a thinking that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Trouble is, it is broke, but the broken bits work, to a given value of worked.

This is all from personal experience, mind you, and could very well be specific to the labs I've worked, the industrial analytical sector or even just the UK, but it concerns me that the workhorse of science is being run by unscientifically minded people and what could be, and should be, a breeding ground for a wider scientific knowledge base is being ignored. Raise the entry qualifications for new starts, encourage development of new methods and techniques, have promotion based on ability and qualification, not just experience and familiarity. I despair to think of the number of people I've worked with, fresh with their science degree, full of the optimism science should offer, worked into an apathetic shell who leave to become salespeople, mechanics and housewives and disillusioned with the scientific community.

Does anyone else share my experiences? Have I just been exposed to the worst the sector has to offer? Are there any easy solutions to the problem? I try my best to encourage scientific thinking, but the majority just don’t care enough. I’m amazed I’ve lasted so long.