What makes a scientist? On the surface, it seems like a simple question. I imagine a lot of people, in and out of the scientific field, think that good postgraduate scientists come up through the traditional path of school specialisation, degrees and not much deviation from the well-trodden route. When you’re on the outside, graduate science can seem like an impentrable field that ‘other people’ do but that is inaccessible to ‘people like you’. It’s an easy trap to fall into. If you come from a background devoid of PhDs, with nary a Dr in sight, then academic science can appear to be a foreign country with strict visa regulations. It would certainly have changed my whole academic path, had I had educators when I was younger who made it clear how accessible postgraduate study was. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that they themselves weren’t privy to the inside view on this kind of life. I have a strong belief that higher education should be accessible to all who have the ability, regardless of background. It’s an easy thing to write but a harder goal to achieve. PhDs can seem so lofty from the outside that many potentially good candidates don’t regard themselves as such because they have an unrealistic view of what is required to complete one. I’m not implying that PhDs are something everyone can or should do but I want everyone to be able to consider them as a potential option, to be dismissed for real reasons, rather than to never consider them at all because they seem like something other people do. I know that real stories of lab work and of the path that people took into science bore the responsibility for setting me on the road I’m still working on. I know that once I made it past the invisible barrier and into the lab, the barriers to higher study seemed to disappear because it became evident I could do it equally as well as many people I worked alongside as a technician. So, in the hope of dispelling the myths of separation that science sometimes upholds, I am going to use this weekly spot to tell you some of my scientific history and a little bit of what I do every day in the lab. I hope that someone might read this and think, ‘You know what? I can do that too.’
The Press Box: MMR
So, this week’s news is all about MMR again. I’m a parent. I’m a scientist. I vaccinate. When the media start to tell me I shouldn’t, I go to the academic source papers and I read the actual experimental reports before deciding how much I should trust that advice. That means I was likely one of the few people outside of the direct medical community that read the original Wakefield paper that caused this situation in the first place. I was unimpressed, either with his credentials or with the science that was described there, for many reasons. Most of these failings of the work, alongside Wakefield’s conflict of interest, have been discussed now (better late than never) elsewhere and I’m not going to rehash them here. What did surprise me is that the science journalists who originally reported the spurious linkage between vaccinations and autism, the people on whom the general public were reliant when it came to dissemination of data, appeared either to have bypassed reading the original paper, taking instead the Wakefield tainted press release as a basis for their story, or to have completely misunderstood the fairly glaring failings of the work presented there. Again though, the quality of front page science journalism is most eloquently taken to task by others and it is not my aim to make war on that here.
What I have noticed though, is the tendency to demonise the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children, to imply they are deficient or rather dumb for making a decision that many people who understand the science realise is wrong. In a case of mea culpa, I sometimes have to stop myself from getting angry with them too, after all, when vaccinations do not always induce immunity, the herd immunity of the population that these non-vaccinating parents are endangering also endangers my child or future children should measles become prevalent again. Then I take a step back and give myself a strong talking-to. What I’ve learnt from parenthood is that you spend an awful lot of your time in a state of fear and anxiety over the health of your offspring. We are not a rational bunch. Being a scientist and in possession of a library e-journal collection, I channel that into research about potential dangers. I wouldn’t expect other people to do that. I had measles as a child and having suffered it and studied it as a disease, I’m fully aware of the dangers it poses. For many parents with no memory of it as a common condition, it seems no more dangerous than a case of chicken pox. Combine that with irresponsible press reportage and you have an anxiety time bomb. I don’t think that we can blame parents for believing the stories that papers print. Maybe not now, after this MMR scare has seen the light of day, but certainly before then, science journalism was seen as wielding authority, I think. It’s not a fair assessment to blame parents for not questioning the headlines they read coming from people who, I’m sure, they thought were more qualified than they were to comment on this subject. It is fair to blame the editors who hire these journalists and pass their work for publication for not questioning the headlines but instead launching them onto front page news space. There are a lot of exceptional science journalists out there but MMR shows that often the voice of science is not the exceptional but the most headline-grabbing. In a week when a respected broadsheet, The Independent, actually gave Wakefield the front page again, treating him as if he had a valid opinion on this and was not the discredited, ethically-tainted individual he really is, I think it is a good time to remind the mainstream news media that they have a responsibility to accurately and critically report science rather than to sensationalise it for front page headlines. The news media didn’t cause the MMR debacle. It was a perfect storm of events. It did fan the waves and make them higher and it cannot be absolved of this responsibility if we are to prevent another ‘MMR’.
Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Virus Hunters
Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers