“Life as a scientist is marked by constant anxiety”: The side of science we don’t talk about © Getty images

“Life as a scientist is marked by constant anxiety”: The side of science we don’t talk about

In the news, you only see the dazzling results of a scientific study – but it's a long road to get to that point, says Dr Pete Etchells.

When we see science in the news, it’s usually at the endpoint – the analyses have been run, the paper published, the lab tidied up in preparation for the next experiment. But what happens before a study hits the headlines?

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I’m a psychologist, and at the moment I’m running a project on the relationship between gambling problems, mental wellbeing, and how we spend money in video games through mechanisms called loot boxes. But this isn’t about the results of that research. Just as important as knowing what a study has found out is understanding the journey that scientists go through to get to that point.

One of the great difficulties in science communication is getting across the fact that, whenever we see a research breakthrough announced in the news, what we’re actually seeing is a snapshot: the final part of a process that started months, or years earlier, and usually one that marks the beginning of the next stage of understanding.

We’re given a tantalising glimpse into research presented in a way that someone, somewhere, has deemed to be the most relevant, or easily digestible. But inevitably, there is always a bigger picture behind the headline, and what’s often missed is the simple fact that scientific research, for the most part, is a long and arduous grind.

For every interesting or important finding that makes it out into the world, there are countless failed experiments: cul-de-sacs of ideas where we didn’t get things quite right – we couldn’t collect enough data to perform a meaningful analysis, or we couldn’t quite figure out what the correct study would look like to answer a particular question.

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And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the ten years since I finished my PhD, it’s that life as a scientist is marked by constant anxiety – experiments that don’t work, project ideas that don’t get funded, papers that don’t get published – interspersed by fleeting, beautiful moments of relief and discovery.

That probably sounds more disheartening than I intend it to be. I’m not saying this to be negative about science. It’s more that, for me at least, just as important as the final result, the end point of a scientific study, is the story of how we got there. Understanding that process, understanding the work that goes into a new discovery, might go some way to giving us more of an appreciation of the value of those findings.

Let me give you an example from my own research. Approximately six months before COVID, an email pinged into my inbox from one of the brilliant people who work tirelessly in our institutional research office. The British Academy – one of many charities and funding bodies which provides grants to researchers to do their work – had a new call out for projects that combine research with public engagement.

It was a two-stage process: first, an initial proposal had to be submitted, detailing what the project would be about, the timeline over which it would run, what the anticipated outputs would be at the end, and why you, the applicant, were the right person to do this work.

Writing grant proposals like this is always a daunting task – the excitement of getting to pitch something you would love to do over the next year or so is always tempered somewhat by the cold, harsh reality that the success rate of actually getting the grant is usually terrifyingly low.

Before I applied to the British Academy, I had submitted 12 applications over the previous 6 years, but only one had been successful. Not a particularly inspirational starting point when you’re trying to find the best way to articulate your latest ideas.

This time around, I was one of the lucky ones. Around December 2019, I found out that I got through the first stage of the process, and into round two. For most grant schemes, this usually involves developing a much more detailed plan of attack: explicitly and objectively outlining why your project idea is important, while explaining what you can realistically achieve within the grant’s timeframe.

This stage also usually involves providing a laser-precise breakdown of how much money you’re applying for, and what you’re going to use it for. Grant applications can live or die by getting this number right; it’s not about asking for the biggest sum possible, but being as sensible and as cost-effective as you can.

Round two was submitted in January 2020, and three months later, the email that every researcher hopes for came through. The application was successful.

Once the grant kicked in, the real work began. Obviously, the survey needed to be developed before it could be launched, but that process itself took months – scouring the research literature to look for examples of best practice, figuring out precise research questions, picking the most appropriate measures and questionnaires to be able to actually answer those questions, applying for ethical approval.

Those months, over the summer of 2020, are probably some of the loneliest I’ve experienced in my working life. I don’t have a research team, and this project didn’t allow for recruiting new students or researchers.

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Science is inherently a collaborative, cooperative process though. And while I had colleagues I could bounce ideas off if I needed to, doing so via Zoom was never going to be the same as chatting things through in the lab or coffee room.

Somehow, all the pieces that needed to fall into place did so, and once the project was officially launched, the anxieties around laying the groundwork were replaced with other worries.

To do the necessary statistical analysis, I’m going to need 5,000 people to complete the survey. In principle an achievable number, but one that requires considerable effort to get to. And so, for the better part of this year, my job has felt less like being a scientist and more like being a marketing manager – hunting down the best places to advertise my wares, and convincing people to spend a few minutes of their day in the pursuit of scientific discovery. I just reached 800 participants last week; there’s still a long way to go.

Will the project generate an amazing, groundbreaking discovery that ends up splashed across the news? It goes without saying that it’s far too early to tell yet. The story of this particular project is still being written, and I am sure that my current worries about recruiting participants will be replaced a bit further down the line with other anxieties about the project.

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I don’t say this in a search for sympathy – such is the life of a scientist. I say it because I am not unique in this respect; most researchers will go through this at some point in their careers. And there is always at least one silver lining to the disquieting uncertainty that incomplete projects bring: that, whatever the results end up telling us, we’ll have found out something new and interesting about the world around us.