Scientists — make time for contemplation

Imperial College, London, UK.

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Behind the satisfying hum of scientific progress, we hear the drumbeat of scientists pushing and shoving. Concerns surface constantly about research integrity, reproducibility and pressure to publish. We need to draw on the history of science and kindle the benefits of three contemplative but immensely practical ideals: reticence, intimacy and innocence.

To be reticent is to reflect on the significance of our work. Pausing can make for better science. Describing the 16-year delay in publishing his book on insectivorous plants, Darwin wrote that “…a man after a long interval can criticize his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person”. The advice remains good today: consider the alarms over human-genome editing.

The precept of intimacy lifts our research beyond the collection of measurements and data. Think of the gifted cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, whose biography was entitled A Feeling for the Organism. Or the evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who instinctively navigated the complex biological systems of Massachusetts’ Sippewissett marshes (see D. Sagan (ed.) Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel; Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012).

Scientific innocence means that ideas — not money or fame — take centre stage. We are modest, open to fresh perspectives and new approaches. We take time for exploratory discussions and to listen. Let the conversation begin.

Nature 573, 196 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02693-3

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