An old trick for book reviewers who have little material with which to judge the temperament of the author is to scrutinize the acknowledgements. Usually raw and unedited, the way these few pages of thanks are presented — gushing, self-centred or brief — can often say as much about the writer as the preceding 300 pages. The same is true for the process of science. Beneath the polished exterior of published academic papers and university press releases lies another world. And it is a world that can be glimpsed, more often than not, in the brief acknowledgements of a PhD thesis.

Alongside the praise (through gritted teeth?) for a (largely absent?) academic supervisor and the earnest gratitude showered on parents, spouses and pets for pastoral support, there is usually a list of thanks for Angela, Juan, Denise, Samuel, Ernie and a directory of other essential first-named extras. This cast of thousands is made up of the support staff and lab technicians who work behind the scenes to hold up the entire research enterprise, and who rarely get the attention they deserve.

On page 542, Nature makes a small effort to address this common oversight. A News Feature places a handful of these support staff front and centre, and offers details on not just their surnames, but also their crucial role. They might have more eye-catching job descriptions than many of their colleagues. But they represent an army of essential workers who are just as valuable and just as deserving of thanks.

The featured four all have very different occupations. Sarah Davis creates laboratory glassware; Jim Harrison collects venom from deadly snakes; Bill Klimm sifts the seas for squid and other inhabitants of the deep; and Dawn Johnson keeps the digital wheels turning in a global bioinformatics archive. What they have in common is their close ties with the researchers they assist, and their remarkable and specialized skills.

Given that technical and support staff are such an important pillar of academic life, it is perhaps surprising that so little academic attention has been paid to their lot — and whether they are content with it. In 2011, researchers at King’s College London did publish a rare survey of skills and training in the United Kingdom, which raised a series of red flags (see Technical staff are exposed on the front line when funding cuts bite: numbers working in university departments had decreased across the disciplines, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of academics and students whom they are expected to support.

One academic said: “We’re skating on thin ice — if people are away ill, or on a conference, or on training … it’s a nightmare. If the academic department is an engine, then technicians are the engine oil that keeps the department running smoothly. Low technician numbers now mean that the department is in danger of seizing up.”

University managers should take note: the report warned that the increasing trend for centralizing services and technical support could weaken the bond between academics and technicians, and so threaten research. For example, shared mechanical workshops, formed by consolidating the facilities of several departments to save money, are unpopular and demoralizing. “University managers sometimes seem not to appreciate the vital contribution that workshop technicians make to research,” the report said. “It is important to highlight the scope for centralisation to generate problems.”

We know that PhD students appreciate the efforts of support staff, but do more senior scientists? Almost certainly. But do the technicians know that? Tell them! Do it today. Print out this editorial and pin it up in break rooms and on staff notice boards. Let technicians everywhere read the following: Angela, Juan, Denise, Samuel, Ernie — and all the rest — we salute you.