A Gentleman Scientist?

An article by James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia Theory, in The Independent last week was a hymn to the joys and benefits of the lone scientific worker. He looked back over his own career, much spent working from his own home, and compared this with the world of corporate science that has grown up over the past few decades. It is much harder now, he argued, for a lone scientist to work outside the network of major universities and research organisations than it was when he first started to practise in the early 1960s. Yet, at the same time, he notes, scientists in universities are increasingly bogged down by administration: “…a Faraday or a Darwin would be buried in paperwork and obliged to spend their time solving problems concerning health and safety, and political correctness.”

I am, I guess, close to what Lovelock has in mind for a “lone scientist” and, yes, it is tough at times. There are silly little problems that most university scientists do not have to face: chemical companies refusing to deliver to non-commercial premises, for example but, equally, I do not feel pressured as many of my compatriots in universities. The worth of scientific endeavour, it often seems, is reduced to such simplistic measures – the size of grants, the impact factor of journals – that many are discouraged from asking genuinely interesting questions in “unfashionable” disciplines. It is possible – just – to keep publishing in peer-reviewed journals without institutional support, but it is not easy. In fact, portraying myself as a “lone scientist” is slightly disingenuous as a benefit of my part-time teaching at Newcastle University is access to their library, without which I could not keep up with the literature.

The last couple of weeks are a case in point. I have spread my time between writing a report for a client who, in turn, was responding to a request from a government department. The results were unsatisfactory, to my eyes, because the survey design (out of my hands) was not very good. But it pays the rent. In between bursts of report writing, however, I had some opportunities to pursue some of my own ideas. If I worked for a larger consultancy, with premises to maintain and salaries to pay, I doubt I would have had this luxury. Working from home, with low overheads, I can make time for this. And I am also working on drafts of a couple of papers, containing results from recent projects. Meanwhile, a paper that I wrote last year has just been published in the journal Freshwater Science and I had an email telling me that another paper had just been accepted by the journal Hydrobiologia. Another email tells me that a major tender for a framework contract with the Environment Agency is about to be released, so I need to set aside some time over the next few weeks to complete this rather tedious and bureaucratic task. There is, in other words, Yin and Yang to my working life as, I guess, there is for everyone.

The Yang, however, extends beyond working life alone, something that Lovelock did not mention in his article (the Yin does too – but that’s for another day). Just one example of the Yang of the Lone Home-based Scientist: it is so much easier to rely on the washing line rather than the tumble dryer. I spend more time than most staring out of the window (someone told me years ago that focussing on infinity relaxed the eye muscles so was good therapy after a session on the microscope). This means I can catch the vagaries of the weather and get the washing in as soon as it starts raining. Air-dried washing also has a wonderful fresh smell that clothes dried in a dryer never have.

And, finally, I almost match the criteria of Wikiepdia’s definition of a Gentleman Scientist: “… a financially independent scientist who pursues scientific study without direct affiliation to a public institution such as a university or government-run research and development body.” You have to take “financially independent” with a pinch of salt, but my knowledge of financial affairs is notoriously bad so it is reasonable to argue that my finances are as good as independent from my interference, even if I am not wholly free from the need to earn a living.

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