What do scientists actually do?

Trekking to fieldsites in the SAFE Project, Sabah, Malaysia.

One of the advantages of being a tropical biologist is that you have a legitimate excuse to escape the soggy shores of England for a few weeks over the winter. There’s something almost magical about stepping onto a plane in the UK, where the trees are leafless, the nights are drawing in and everyone seems to have a head cold, and disembarking in the tropics, where the humid heat hits you like a wall and everything’s in full flower. These research trips (or ‘holidays’ as one of friends irritatingly describes them) form the backbone of my research on tropical biodiversity and conservation.

Also, they really aren’t holidays. Over the weeks or months I am away, each day is carefully planned to fit into a research schedule that makes the most of my time. First there is the set up and visa chasing. In my last trip this involved a noisy and smelly week in the centre of Jakarta, running from government office to office delivering passport photos and filling in forms. Then there is travelling to the research area (often quite remote), liaising with local scientists and collaborators, and setting up research plots. Once this is done, there is

Forest view from the SAFE Project campsite, Sabah, Malaysia

the careful collection of data. In my case this usually involves surveying for different insect species, collecting specimens using standard techniques and storing and identifying them. The set-up and distribution of each survey area, the methods used and the types of insects studied are all planned well in advance; determined by the research questions being asked. Once the data is collected, the results are analysed statistically and written up for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  For applied research the process doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most important step is to make sure that findings are communicated to other organizations and individuals who can then make use of the information. For my research, presentations to the agricultural industry and conservation organisations are vital in insuring results actually inform policy and management on the ground.

This whole process of research, from the inception of a research question to planning, project design, data collection, analysis, write up, review, publication and communication is central to how science works. Most of it isn’t at all glamorous or exciting, but rather careful, balanced and reflective. Only rarely do findings lead to a sudden shift in concepts or how things operate; rather data slowly accumulates which provides support for or against a particular theory or process. As Isaac Newton put it “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” or as Hal Abelson has it “”If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.” Science is all about communication and building on the ideas and concepts of other researchers. I sometimes wonder if this careful and interactive core of science is underplayed or ignored when science is portrayed in the media. All too often scientists appear as egg-headed intellectuals, crouching in their high-tech labs awaiting a eureka moment, or, for field biologists, charging through the tropical rainforests without apparent direction on the lookout for a cure for cancer or the discovery of a new species.

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