Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela
I am often asked why I left South Africa, and 16 years on and I honestly don’t remember the exact reason. I know my husband and I were fortunate to receive an excellent education in South Africa and attended University there too. We wanted to be citizens of the world, to use our education where it was needed. I’m pleased to say that for the most part, we have been successful in this. No matter what happens in life, nobody can take away your education.
Thandulwazi* means for the love of knowledge in Zulu. Wouldn’t it be great if all pupils could go to school with those words in their hearts? Instead, as the post-grad assigned to supervise them, I see students in the final year of their science degree, who are working so hard to complete coursework, study for exams and write a dissertation, that they seem to have forgotten that they chose science for the love of knowledge. They started university full of excitement and promise and over the three years have been worn down to just wanting to get a 2:1. Some, of course, will always be enthusiastic and will want to know more than the syllabus dictates. They are challenging and fascinating people.
I had a brief exchange with Erika-Check Haydn, from Nature News, about the challenges UK universities are facing as they attempt to produce biomedical scientists equipped to face the changing environment of research. They are only just up to speed with basic molecular biology techniques. Now, the technology companies are saying we need to train bioinformaticians. These are scientists who will spend their post doc jobs sitting at a computer, nowhere near a lab, analysing millions of digital data points. Where’s the thandulwazi in that?
So much of the data produced in experiments today is digital i.e. there is no physical picture of the result for us to examine.The peer-review process of publication in reputable journals should be able to put the data through the ringer, but sometimes the work is so specialist it can be difficult for outsiders to follow. The very nature of digital data is that it can be amended. The pressure to publish is a constant threat to researchers, and it can mean that research questions may not be stringently tested. I’m not saying that is what happened in the following examples but, questions will be raised if the data cannot be reproduced independently. While 2011 saw some incredible scientific breakthroughs, from the colour of meteorites to the secrets of aging (in mice, at least), it also saw two low points in science reporting.
Two research papers are in question at this time. The first is the finding that a murine leukaemia or related virus (MLV) was detected in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, as the number of samples was limited and the data not reproducible, the authors had no choice but to retract their publication. That’s not to say they aren’t right. They simply need to find another way to prove it to their peers.
The second paper is more topical. Its focus is stem cell lineage and it was published in the journal Blood. The researchers acknowledge that some of the data may not reflect the published data analysis. This paper, was published in 2008 and cited 13 times in other papers. It could be argued that although there were errors in assembling the manuscript for publication, the authors stand by their findings and the interpretation thereof.
So, where does that leave the rest of us, struggling through to try and publish our blood, sweat and tears? I think it leaves us a little tainted in the public eye, and we must work harder to make sure our science stands up to rigorous scrutiny by our peers. As research funding decreases, the strongest research questions and protocols will rise to the top. Let’s hope that exciting research, and the love of science, does not drop away altogether.
*The St Stithian Foundation was set up to provide support for a Saturday school called Thandulwazi for pupils struggling to find a way complete their school education. It also supports teacher training. The Thandulwazi Trust is a Maths and Science Academy based in Johannesburg, South Africa.