The progress and success of any society, and in fact civilisation, is the result of its collective knowledge.
It’s hard to fathom the amount of knowledge gathered through millennia of human evolution – from how to light a fire, to generating electricity – but each discovery has been imperative in our collective evolution.
In our current age, this essential pursuit of knowledge is underpinned by science, spanning fields such as physics, medicine, chemistry and earth sciences.
Being the intuitive and curious beings we are, it’s not surprising science is a career path many enthusiastic young people wish to follow. But rather than being an exciting adventure into the unknowns of the world, scientific research is an area bursting with frustration and failure.
The failure is most strongly highlighted by the fact approximately only one in 20 PhD graduates make it through to being primary research leaders in laboratories.
And this despite a near decade of university-based study for little financial return, and the sacrifice of many long days and weekends to carry out experiments.
Modern science is an expensive pursuit requiring costly equipment and reagents. Only about a third of proposed projects considered “fundable” by the NHMRC (the main funding body for medical research in Australia) are currently funded.
In addition, the current university-based training model in science entails about twenty-fold more trainees than positions available as lead researchers.
A perfect concoction of expertise, time and money from a finite pool is required for scientific success – and that makes science a difficult career.
So, with such great odds against success in science, why do, and should, young people continue to chase a career in research science?
Well, science is more than a career – it’s a lifestyle. It’s an obsession.
Oliver Smithies, the 86-year-old whose 2007 Nobel-prize winning work led to the creation of genetically-modified organisms, still spends his Saturday afternoons experimenting in the laboratory.
Science is the thrill of chasing an idea or a theory. One need only think of Darwin’s exploration of the theory of evolution.
Science is about shining light through dark murky waters of our world and uncovering the unknown, as with Marie Curie’s relentless drive to understand radiation.
It was only recently that six Australian post-graduate students – myself included – had the privilege of meeting Nobel laureates at the 61st annual Lindau meeting in Germany.
Held in the last week of June, the meeting gathered 23 Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, medicine and physiology, along with 566 young researchers selected from across 77 countries. This provided a perfect platform for the transfer of scientific knowledge across cultural, geographical and, most importantly, generational boundaries.
To my mind, one of the most interesting attributes of the laureates was that, despite their own scientific failures, they had persevered with science. Often with an element of luck, they made some of the most celebrated and important discoveries of our era.
One of the best-known stories is the serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming who, on returning from a summer vacation in the 1920s, observed a contaminating mould had killed part of his bacterial culture. That mould was later identified to make penicillin, the first antibiotic.
Science is a difficult road and a gamble, with not a small element of luck involved. But the euphoric moments of discovery that pepper the long bleak road of research provide the greatest satisfaction and reward, and make science more than a worthy pursuit.