Attention to detail…
by Jim Caryl
Some MOST people would describe me as being a little moderately anally retentive; I have a rather punishing attention to detail, particularly so with the way I approach experiments. Something that really annoys me is when fellow scientists display a degree of slapdashness that borders on being negligent.
Many of us are publicly funded, and one of my aims in life is to communicate science to the public. I love science, both as a system within which I do research, and as a philosophy. If I am to wax lyrical about the rationality and worth of science, and the scientific method, to the public, and use it as a basis in arguments against irrationality, pseudo-science quackery and superstition, then I damned well better practice what I preach. As such I employ the skills and techniques I have learnt in a manner that takes account of these values; I design experiments with good controls, I vary the experimental variable whilst controlling the others. I use evidence-based methodologies that have been tried and tested, thus use minimal materials to achieve my ends in the minimal possible time.
It is not always possible to do this, especially in my current area where there are no protocols for what I’m doing as it’s never been done before. None the less, I form testable hypotheses, design experiments to test them and based upon the result, either modify, scrap or move on.
In your average science lab, based upon the very large number of science labs I have been to, I would have to say that the idea of sitting down and developing a testable hypothesis that makes predictions about outcomes, then designing experiments to test these is probably not what many researchers are doing. What they are doing is ham-fisting their way through protocols given to them by more senior players, which they follow blindly, often without knowing what each step in the protocol is doing at a physical level.
Many of these protocols have been adapted, cut-down and streamlined, which is often another way of describing that short-cuts, often rather slapdash ones, have been introduced. Now there is nothing wrong with this, per se, as long as the protocol is in the hands of a capable person who knows why the protocol has been revised in this way. But, the fact is you cannot instruct a junior member of research staff with protocols that have been cut-down in this way; the full anally-retentive protocol should be provided, or sought, and the researcher allowed to refine it once they’ve identified for themselves the pros and cons of keeping each step.
Take a simple cloning of DNA. There are several correct, evidence-based way to approach this, and there are innumerable slapdash anecdotal ways to approach it. Whilst the slap dash ways can work, often in the hands of a scientist who is experienced with the technique, or by pot luck, the caveat is that if it doesn’t work, they’ll have absolutely no idea where it went wrong; thus they are doomed to repeat until either, by chance, it does work, or they choose to do it properly. Either way, it hasn’t saved them the time they thought it would.
Alternatively, if they take the time to do each step carefully, with the appropriate controls to ensure that they are still manipulating biomolecules, and not just clear buffer solution, then their chances of success are far greater; furthermore, should it fail at any point, they know precisely where it may have failed and can address it directly.
The culture of protocols that different laboratories maintain vary widely. I guess this is no different to the systems of filing, administration, and computer use between offices; one presumes that each lab or office is using this method because it is the most efficient. Or is it? I have to say that I find a lot of labs clinging feverishly to protocols that are long past their sell by dates. Sure, they work, and as the old adage goes, ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. But when you’re presented with a protocol for the preparation of a protein that takes a full week, it is not unreasonable to ask whether there isn’t a quicker way of achieving the same end. Such talk is often heralded as blasphemous, and this curious attachment to protocols is more like an indoctrinated religion than science.
I am one of those ‘crazy maverick’ characters who likes new biotechnologies, and will use them willingly if I feel it will help me get to where I need to be in the most efficient manner possible, or simply because they’re cool and interesting, but attempting to introduce these into the culture of the lab is as precarious as Henry VIII’s reformation.
Thus as much as I take the time to engage with people I meet about science and discovery, I spend a greater measure bullying and cajoling apathic researchers into thinking about what they’re doing and why theyr’re doing it.