Science is definitely a team sport

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As a scientist I’m proud of the research I do. I enjoy explaining to non-scientists what I’m investigating and, of course, why.

However, I’m often less excited about the inevitable follow up question: “so what have you found?”

It’s not because I’m ashamed of our results. Far from it. It’s just that non-scientists seem to expect more than I’m able to give them. I can tell them that we have found a moderate correlation between thing A and thing B, under a specific set of circumstances. Or that when thing X happens, the levels of thing Y seem to change a bit. But I can’t tell them that yes, I’ve found the gene that causes a certain disease, or developed the blood test to diagnose it.

People ask the question expecting to hear about eureka moments and major discoveries. The sorts of things that win Nobel prizes. But those major scientific discoveries aren’t made by one person, alone in a lab somewhere. They’re made through the work of many hands, over many, many years. Science isn’t a solo sport; it’s definitely a team effort.

The process of scientific research is a bit like solving an incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzle. One group of researchers somewhere in the world will find something interesting, and publish it. Other researchers will pick up those tiny puzzle pieces and add to them with their own experiments. They’ll publish their findings, and other researchers will read those, and follow up with more experiments. And the cycle goes on, with many people adding more and more pieces, until eventually the whole thing comes together to form a complete picture.

And then there’s all the work you don’t see. Failure is a huge part of scientific research. We are constantly coming up with new questions and trying new things. And a lot of the time those things don’t quite work, or don’t give any conclusive results. Scientific research is a bit like the proverbial iceberg – what the public see is the tip, the successes, while the rest is hidden under the water.

So although I really don’t have an exciting answer to the “so what have you discovered?” question, I do know that the work I’m doing is valuable. I’m putting together my own tiny piece of a big jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully, one day, that small piece will contribute to a whole picture. And that would be pretty cool.

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