Today I was reading something interesting on the back of the carton containing my delicious, low-calorie, high-energy, mind-building microwave lunch. I know I should have been reading papers - and I do, generally. I read them for breakfast, and at other heroic times during the day - like when I'm driving. But as I waited for the microwave 'bing' that would bring my Pavlovian conditioned response (mild nausea), I read the box. And on the box was this guarantee: if I am not completely satisfied with the contents I can return the carton for a full refund. As my mind wandered from what, in the world, could represent 'satisfaction' with a microwave lunch, I began to think about guarantees in general.


Only yesterday I ran into several solicitations for guarantees. A prospective postdoc who was in the process of applying for a fellowship had asked me to guarantee that she could come (and be paid) even if she didn't get a fellowship. A current postdoc asked for a guarantee that this would be the last experiment for the paper he hopes to write. And my institution asked me to guarantee that in two years I would be sustaining my current level of funding. Where did anyone get the idea that we give guarantees in science?

Probably the idea that there are real guarantees in science comes from the idea of tenure. What a wonderful concept. If we are very very good, and do our jobs very very quietly, and publish mainstream papers so that we can get mainstream grants, our institutions will guarantee our jobs so that suddenly, and completely out of the character that we have established for a decade or so of nose-to-the-grindstone, myopic research, we suddenly emerge from our cocoons to be the fabulously imaginative, icon-smashing, other-brain-hemisphere-thinking, intellectual butterflies we really are - we couldn't do the really cool stuff before for fear of shaking up the establishment and losing our jobs. This is something that lots of us in the world of academia (which really isn't a world per se, but more of a soggy wasteland with dangerous reptiles and miasmic smells) aspire to, and hence the search for lesser guarantees along the way. Incidentally, we know that even tenure isn't really a guarantee - if they want to get rid of you badly enough they just close the department and open another one, rehiring everyone but you: “Yes, but you only had tenure in the Department of Molecular Genetics—this is the Department of Genetic Molecular Studies.” It happens.

But no, this isn't going to devolve into a speculation on tenure, or jobs, or job security, or any of those things that make my stomach knot. You'd like a guarantee that I'm going to get to something like a point. So, are there any guarantees in science? Publications, funding, recognition, progress, success - none of these is, in any way, guaranteed. But I do think that there is one thing, for all intents and purposes, that we guarantee. It is the basis of everything we do in modern science. And, because it is, potentially, a money-back guarantee, we have to be very careful that we keep it as solid as we can.

This is our bona fide money-back guarantee that we make to all those people who, directly or indirectly, support us: science is worth it. I mean this in the sense of the cash, dough, bread, moolah, quids, greenbacks, dosh, bucks, semolians, clams, lolly, bees and honey. (I do hope the Brits among you appreciate how hard I worked to include your incomprehensible slang here). That's what we guarantee - this stuff that we are all so busy discovering, engineering, manipulating, arguing about, it's really worth the money. I'm not talking about funding, but something more fundamental, the font from which all funding comes: interest. And here I don't mean dividends, surplus, extra dollars, but interest in the sense of “hmmm, isn't that interesting?” Yes, I've suddenly, and against all expectation ever-patient reader, arrived at what passes for a point. We pretty much guarantee that if the public - be it government, charitable foundation, industrial supporters, or a rich person with a checkbook - gives us money, then, somewhere along the way, we are going to give them something interesting. And this isn't just a sort of “hmm, interesting, could you pass the cheese?” sort of interest, but a real “let's give this guy some more money” sort of interest.

It's unlikely that anyone who isn't a scientist is going to single you out for flat-out interest and excitement, complete with money. Of course, this does happen, and if it happens to you my sincere congratulations, really, while the rest of us all gnash our teeth behind your back. For most of us, though, the sort of interest, money, support, and such that the world gives us is for all of us, science in general. And we can pretty well guarantee that even if the world doesn't entirely understand exactly what we're doing, at some level they are pretty terrifically interested in it. That's how humans are, provided they aren't hungry or running away from scary animals. Everyone wants to know how the universe we live in actually works, and an awful lot of people are really, truly interested in what you're finding out about it. Or would be, if you could properly explain it.

And therein, I'm afraid, lies the problem. If you are like 99% of scientists, you can't. You can't make what you do every day fundamentally interesting to people who are already pretty fundamentally interested. And the terribly sad thing is that if we all could then the 'interest', with all those wonderful money words attached, would most likely be guaranteed too. Only we can't.

What's the worst that could happen? Well, everyone could just decide that science isn't worth it and say, “Thank you very much, but we'll spend the money on something else... like roads and guns and stuff. And we want our money back.”

“What!”, we say? “You want it back?” “Yes”, they say, “A check would be fine. And best of luck in your new career.”

So is this all hopeless? No. Come back later, and I'll fix it. We just need an attitude adjustment and some lessons in how to listen and how to explain.

To be continued...