Scientific “importance”

The Times’ have just published a list of the “100 most important people in British science”. I was one of the judges. It’s online behind the Times paywall, or you can buy a paper copy (added 11:35am: or read it on the UCL STS blog).


I hope people disagree with it. I disagree with most of it all of it the very idea of it. But that’s why these lists are put together: the fun of disagreeing with them.

I want people to disagree with it because I want people to think about where “importance” sits in science (and whether you’re happy with that). If you are surprised by the position of someone or another, don’t just think “stupid Times”; remember this person must have been recommended by someone. The Times surveyed a load of scientific institutions, not just the judges. You are probably disagreeing with the idea that this person has influence as much as anything else (though there are a fair few people on the list I’m still unconvinced by…).

Obviously, the whole exercise is very silly. Is someone important if they are very influential in one particular part of science? Or only if they have impact on lots of different parts of science, or if they make science meaningful outside the scientific community? If this last choice: where precisely? Westminster? Fleet St? Somewhere more imaginative? In the end, we took a broad approach; reflecting the range of people in science and a variety of ways they might have influence (which, of course, made comparisons all the more difficult).

For me, however, the biggest problem was ascribing power to specific people.

For example, the first draft of the list had a glaring gap when it came to school science. There were a few scientists who do work with schools, but no one who worked full time on the issue. We struggled. As I told the Times:

When it comes to school-science, it is especially difficult to identify powerful individuals (rather than groups). Each teacher has the capacity for immense power, but only for a small number of people. Individual teachers aren’t famous, but that’s because they garner their power by treating their students as individuals. We could have anonymous listings for “the teaching profession”, “school technicians everywhere”, “anyone who has ever run an after-school science club”, and, because influence is not always positive in education, “really boring science teachers who alienate their students”.

We could say the same for a lot of science communication: that it’s at its most powerful when working face-to-face. Yes, the big name scientist-popularisers on the television and/or bestseller bookshelves reach millions of people and so have  influence, but so do the multitude of smaller-scale interactions. Arguably the “long tail” of the web is only increasing this fragmentation of science’s “publics”. We might say similar things about the role of public-to-public science communication. Headlines are flashy, but maybe it’s word of mouth that really constructs science’s importance.

Of course, this problem of individualising power is true when thinking about scientific research too. Much of contemporary science is modeled on networks of individuals, not superstars. As Martin Rees says in this video interview (£wall) on the Times site:

Most scientists are anonymous. A few, a fairly arbitrary number get well known and I think my heroes are really those who work hard and produce most of the science without getting any public recognition. Just as we have the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, then I think we should acknowledge scientists who are unknown, but are the ones that do most of the groundwork of the subject.

This point is underlined by Ben Miller’s Eureka column, where he reflects on only having heard of a handful of the 100 names on the list.

We should also remember that a fair bit of work in science happens under deliberate anonymity, not just the quiet lab-bench graft Rees is talking about. Indeed, at one point we thought about adding an entry for unidentifiable GCHQ scientists and, more simply, “peer reviewers”. In the end though, as with “boring science teachers”, the Times stuck to identifiable names.

Perhaps this difficulty in identifying individuals in science shows up the central foolishness of such a list. Still, I learnt a lot (and laughed a lot) from the playing with this list, and I hope you do too. Have a read of it. Think about why you disagree and how, and use this as a chance to reflect upon the often unnoticed networks of influence running through, across, and out of the scientific community. Think about where power really sits in science, and whether you’re ok with the current state of affairs.

inside Eureka

Added 11:40am: See also Athene Donald’s blogpost about the experience of judging the list.

10 thoughts on “Scientific “importance”

  1. Pingback: Eureka! -Choosing the 100 Most Influential People in British Science « Athene Donald's Blog

    1. Trevor

      It’s hard to believe that Cambridge is letting him go. In a week when the UK’s doors have been shown to be shut to the best of foreign talent, they appear wide open to our best and brightest leaving. Owen’s work on brain injury has changed the world and it’s clear that there’s more to come. But not from Cambridge, unfortunately.

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