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Oct
27

Learning from pioneers in science from the 20th Century

Having just completed review of a manuscript that profiled a prominent scientist in my field from the 20th century, it got me thinking openly.

Firstly, I rarely read profiles of long deceased scientists in my field, frankly who but perhaps the odd emeritus professor (with all due respect) would have time on their hands to write them, let alone read them, between writing grants or trying to hold on to a job in industry. Sadly it is more likely we would now write articles in honor of departed colleagues. Does that say something that we do not have the time to celebrate the achievements of a few titans that published hundreds of papers before computers and software to track the literature as we know them today. One would hope that Wikipedia could do a half decent job of this, but its very weak when it comes to scientists, even the living key scientists, as we have discussed in the past.

But perhaps we do need to capture such historic information because we can learn how fields of science evolve, how today’s discoveries came from their foundational work. It is not that I am getting nostalgic for the good old days, but reviewing the paper got me thinking about scientific lineage and how I have a responsibility to pass what I have picked up onto the next generation. If we do not write such oral histories down, how will the people that taught me be remembered otherwise. However much we may or may not have got on with our PhD (or other academic) mentors, they played a part in getting us to where we are, and we in turn contributed to their published legacy.

Do I want to be remembered as someone that worked on many enzymes in liver slices during my PhD? No. But this work and critical time in my education is reflected in what I do now and why my interests are quite diverse. As students in a scientific area we should perhaps have some historical context for what we are doing, beyond it being topical and funded by a grant etc. It may pay to go back and see how much of the pioneering work in a field was actually funded by grants from governments or foundations. That may be an interesting analysis I would certainly read. Namely can we get the next generation of pioneers to innovate by funding them or starving them of funds? Sure, people will leave the field, but those truly committed to an idea, will find a way to do the experiment and fund it. Perhaps those are the ones we will read about later in the 21st century as shaping science.

 

 

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