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Cutting-edge science: where are we now?

22 January 2020
Reflections from the cutting edge
Progress, reproducibility, and courage: great science is about being prepared to be wrong.

At the beginning of this year, Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold publicly retracted a paper published out of her research group. Others had repeated the science and found that the enzymes studied did not do quite what the paper had claimed. Upon inspection, some key data had been excluded by one of the scientists involved, so the published results were inaccurate.

This is by no means unheard of in research. What was interesting, though, was Arnold’s response. Standing up with a public acknowledgment when it was neither formally necessary nor socially expected.

You see, reproducibility is a pillar of the scientific method. To trust scientific results, we must be able to show that they are more than random fluctuations, flukes of whimsy - or products of biased data collection.

Good science is sort of like being in a healthy, mature relationship. Your partner or friend is consistent, you don’t pretend they’re more than they actually are, and your family and other friends mostly like them (or are at least open to the idea, if you give them enough time and evidence).

Irreproducibility is a serious problem, a crisis across a number of fields. It can be potentially quite damaging and embarrassing for researchers—and the standard response is a quiet retraction. Arnold’s statement was not entirely revolutionary, but it was brave. Above all, it was an act of great science.

“That’s nice, but why are you harping on about it?”, I hear you say. This issue of Science Alliance takes you right up to the scientific front line. You walk along the cutting edge of research to get a taste of where we are and where we’re going.

As with all of our issues, you’ll find that science is vibrant and dynamic and full of awesome creativity. I am struck by this every day as a chemistry research student, where I design ways for trapped ions—literally, single ions of ytterbium held in place with electric fields—to be used to find solutions to chemical problems even the largest supercomputers cannot.

A mere flight of stairs away, other (very different!) chemists are running through hundreds of compounds in inspired searches for new vaccines and antibiotics and enzyme mimics, and light-up sensors and antidepressants. Just down the hall, they’re making synthetic polymers that mimic cartilage and figuring out how to make super slippery surfaces.

But science is more than just its content. You’d be forgiven for forgetting this, I think, as the more prominent discourse behaves as though scientific theories are fundamentally flimsy bits of thought wisping through the aether. Frances Arnold’s public statement was inadvertently emblematic of the more-ness of science’s cutting edge: the rigour, the communication, and the courage.

Sure, the scientific vanguard is abuzz with enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge and progress, and the content at these frontiers is genuinely mind-boggling, but what makes all this important—what makes science science—is this relentless quest for reality, for validity, and for rigour. There’s nothing flimsy about it.

Written by Clare Birch

Senior Chemistry and Mathematics student, the University of Sydney