The sociology of science

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Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, was a very good place to think about the sociology of science, and phenomena like science rage. About a hundred biologists, including students, were isolated in a remote, but most attractive part of the island for five days, talking science for not less than eight hours a day. And the outside the formal sessions, even when swimming, we talked and laughed a lot. (It is curious how much scientists laugh, and that this is seldom remarked upon.)

We are all acutely aware of the social aspects of our subject. The meeting was to compare the embryonic development of a wide variety of animals, and a common complaint was that the field was becoming too "frogocentric"; that we should stop using the development of the frog as our model. The reason for this current frog-power comes from the very success of those who study them. So it becomes very hard for others, who work on mice or fish, not to be tempted to shoe-horn their results into the frog mode. This is very irksome for those who think of the frog almost as an alien from outer space and that it should not be used as the model for vertebrate development. Fashions in thinking can have an important influence on research plans though it does not much matter in the long run.

There could not have been a single person at the meeting who was not fully aware of the sociology of science, for it affects how they run their lives. Not to do so would be naive in the extreme. Scientific competition is a clear example. In science a discovery can only be made once; there is no reward for being second, let alone third. Funding and careers are dependent on original discoveries, however minor. Publish first or perish. This inevitably leads to a reluctance to reveal new results or progress until they are published. Similarly there is a natural hesitation, often a refusal to give out freely new chemical probes that one has made. (Some journals insist that such probes become available once the paper is published.) Even so, there is an enormous amount of collaboration, for science is essentially a social enterprise with us all contributing to a common body of knowledge. The best collaborations are based on working with people one likes, but are often based on sharing complementary skills.

Publication has its own rites and rituals. Very few papers are written by a single author and collaborative writing has its own tensions. Deciding whose name comes first or last - both places carry great prestige - great can fracture friendships. And we do not need a Which? journal to tell us the best place to publish - everyone knows. At the top of the hierarchy in our area are Nature and Science, followed by Cell, and so on. And it matters where you publish since it will have a big influence on both grants and jobs. Third line journals just do not count. This gives the editors of the leading journals a great deal of power - many would say too much - in deciding what to publish. And since some are commercial ventures they themselves compete for the hottest papers. Editors, and I am one, control publication by choosing to whom they send a paper for refereeing and how they interpret the reports. Science rage, which does exist, is most often directed at anonymous referees who unfairly recommend rejection of one's paper.

Laboratory life is social, very hard work and often great fun. Laboratories each have their own style. Some are like factories, others like communes. The head rarely has the time to actually work at the bench. Someone has to write the grant submissions and go to meetings to know what is going on, and whose work one should treat as the more reliable. But those sociologists who think that science is merely a social construct should tell a young scientist I know; she spent a whole year dogged by failure before she finally managed to get her new technique to work.

I came back with some 50 pages of valuable notes and will report the goodies to my colleagues. All a social construct? Only a sociologist could believe that.

Lewis Wolpert of University College, London, is chairman of Copus (Committee on the Public Understanding of Science).