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Slow science

Nature Chemistry volume 4, pages 588589 (2012) | Download Citation

Jean-François Lutz wonders whether chemists should slow down.

In 1844, Charles Goodyear described in a succinct patent the preparation of vulcanized rubber, which remains, more than 150 years after its discovery, one of the most produced materials in the chemical industry1. This major discovery was not the result of sudden inspiration; it came after more than 10 years of repeated experiments and unsuccessful results. This famous example is obviously not an isolated case in the history of chemistry. Many breakthroughs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were made by one researcher — or a small group of dedicated researchers — after many years of patient investigation punctuated by rare, but meaningful, publications.

This historical approach to scientific research is one of the sources of inspiration of the recently founded Academy of Slow Science. In a short manifesto2, the Berlin-based academy emphasizes that time, failure, reading and thought are needed to conduct relevant research. Although the academy is not directly opposed to modern publication and communication standards, it aims to promote a slower and more thoughtful way of performing research. This message may well reflect the opinion of many contemporary researchers.

The recent internet revolution has drastically changed the face of modern science. For instance, the emergence of online-manuscript submission and peer-review processes — as well as the widespread adoption of web-based bibliometric tools — have considerably increased the speed of scientific research and its dissemination over the past 15 years. This acceleration has obvious advantages for the practice of science itself, but may also be a factor in the prevalence of duplicate publication, plagiarism, irreproducible results and fraud3,4. In this context, perhaps the message from the Academy of Slow Science is noble and understandable. Why don't we slow down? Why don't we take time, like Charles Goodyear did, to think and to optimize promising ideas?

“The rhythm of discovery has changed. Progress is now more incremental than it used to be 100 years ago.”

Chemistry, which is typically a fast and pragmatic field of research, is an interesting discipline with which to try to address these questions. The whole field of chemistry is based on a palpable reality, which is the notion of atoms and molecules. This finite description of matter is the playground of chemists, whereas the study of sub-atomic events is traditionally left to physicists. Hence, the primary task of synthetic chemists consists of joining molecular building-blocks together to form new compounds. This can be done relatively quickly. With appropriate funding, manpower and a decent level of creativity, chemists can generate interesting results much faster than scientists in many other disciplines. As a consequence, the number of publications and citations of contemporary chemists are, in general, quite high. This is certainly good for the ego of individual researchers, but is it really a benefit for global human knowledge?

Image: © ALEX WING

In fact, it seems more and more obvious that twenty-first-century scientists do not have anything close to the amount of free time that would be necessary to read all of the literature in their field of research, even in very specialized areas. The quantity of new information published every week in chemistry and closely related disciplines has become so great that today a rapid glance at table-of-content graphics has often replaced in-depth reading of articles themselves. A recurrent question in this context is whether all of this literature is necessary? It seems obvious that many newly published articles are routine studies that are often a repetition, with small variations, of existing concepts. Here again, the philosophy of the Academy of Slow Science could be applied. Indeed, more mature manuscripts would certainly be more beneficial to the broad scientific community than a large number of quickly done studies.

A very inspiring example of carefully optimized science is the recent report by Leibler and colleagues on self-healing rubber5. Many years after Goodyear's discovery of vulcanization, this small group of researchers, based at the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles (ESPCI) in the heart of Paris, have beautifully revisited the concept of rubber. In their article, these researchers describe how low-cost chemicals from renewable resources such as fatty acids and urea can be used to build high-performance rubbery supramolecular networks. Unlike conventional rubber, these materials exhibit unprecedented self-healing properties and can be repaired by simple finger pressure when damaged.

In my opinion, this work represents one of the most significant advances in polymer science of the last few years. Interestingly, the story behind the discovery of this new type of rubber has parallels with Goodyear's accomplishments. The project undertaken by Leibler's team matured for seven long years before it was eventually published in a high-impact journal (F. Tournilhac, personal communication). During that long period of time, the ESPCI researchers experienced failure, but optimized their approach to finally succeed in obtaining an unprecedented material. This success story suggests that the message promoted by the Academy of Slow Science is still valid in our modern times.

Would it be realistically possible for all contemporary researchers to follow the above example? The culture in which scientific research is currently performed and communicated would not be an easy one to change. In the work described above, the group led by Leibler is already recognized at the international level. In some respects, the fact that these researchers are highly regarded well-established scientists means that they do not have to 'advertise' their scientific skills and can take time to optimize promising projects. The situation is extremely different for young researchers starting their academic careers in chemistry. Nowadays, young assistant professors typically have a 5–10 year timeframe to prove their value. If scientists in their first academic position dared to wait 5-or-more years to optimize a project before eventually publishing their first paper, they would most probably be overtaken by peers publishing papers much more frequently. This is what, in part, feeds the publish-or-perish culture.

“The number of publications of contemporary chemists is quite high. Good for their ego, but is it a benefit for global human knowledge?”

The point is that Goodyear and many other heroes in the history of science worked the way they did because the international competition of their times proceeded at a relatively gentle pace. In today's world, researchers don't have a chance to slow down because tools allowing fast research and fast dissemination of knowledge are available to many scientists — and competition is intense. As a consequence, the rhythm of discovery has changed. Progress is now much more incremental than it used to be 100 years ago.

Although (fortunately) sudden paradigm shifts still occur today, small steps — published regularly — seem to be the key to collective success. As alluded to earlier in this essay, this new way of performing research has some drawbacks. It is hard to keep track of everything and it would be much nicer to go back to a more 'artisanal' way of working. Modern chemists are far from the traditional picture of the lone scientist locked away in a laboratory, and can probably be better described as CEOs of small enterprises. Was it better before? It is better now? It has just evolved. In the end, despite possible loss of quality and the potential for more widespread fraud, science will progress and find its way as it always did.

Nevertheless, the message of the Academy of Slow Science deserves consideration. It is almost certain that the Slow Science Manifesto will not lead to a change of rhythm in contemporary science. However, it encourages scientists to think about how they work and their role in society. Thus, every researcher should maybe spend a few minutes reading it and then drawing their own conclusions about what it says. After all, taking time to think is certainly what we are all aspiring to.

References

  1. 1.

    Improvement of india-rubber fabrics. US patent 3633 (1844).

  2. 2.

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    & Science 334, 1182–1182 (2011).

  4. 4.

    Scientometrics 90, 891–904 (2012).

  5. 5.

    , , & Nature 451, 977–980 (2008).

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  1. Jean-François Lutz is in the Institut Charles Sadron, 67034 Strasbourg, France

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Correspondence to Jean-François Lutz.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nchem.1415

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