The tragedy of the commons

Having worked in multiple molecular biology laboratories, it’s not hard to notice that science generates a lot of waste. Some labs are worse than others. I’m lucky to be in a lab in which, due to financial and environmental awareness on the part of both students and staff, we really try to reduce waste. We wash and re-use our weigh boats, plastic syringes, our glass culture tubes, sometimes even plastic conical tubes. Many labs don’t do this; many find this practice laughable. There is also the argument that it costs more in time to wash these things (or in money to pay someone to wash them), than it costs to simply buy more. Herein lies the tragedy of the commons… from the small laboratory to global environmental issues.

The paper The Tragedy of the Commons was published in Science by Garrett Hardin in 1968. I do not remember the exact context in which this piece was recommended to me, but only because it is so applicable to everything and I therefore think about it often. It is something that everyone should read. It discusses the population problem, and obvious related problems. I leave you with a rather long excerpt:

Freedom-ruin

Where does the mind meet the heart?

I’m currently reading a book called, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality”, written by the 14th Dalai Lama. Increasingly, it seems that Bhuddism is the only (popular) religion that is compatible with science, and I am discovering that more and more people I know — who share my scientific worldview — also find some appeal in Bhuddism.

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Scientific writing: writing that bores, confuses, and frustrates

Lately, I have been pondering (a friend of mine might call it “internally lamenting”) the way science is presented in the written form. That is, why must scientific writing be so terrible to read? Why are certain practices — probably bad practices — encouraged?

I tweeted several links yesterday about scientific writing. Appropriately, today I stumbled across a post in the Science Careers section of Science, called How to Write Like a Scientist. It made me laugh… but also sad.

I don’t think that we should write as if we are trying desperately to captivate or move an audience (for example, poetically), but I also don’t think we should write in a manner that induces sleep… or the desire to stab oneself in the eye with the nearest sharp object. And why is the passive “It was concluded that…” preferable to the active “We concluded that…”? And on that note, I leave you with a few opinion pieces concerning use of the passive voice in technical writing, submitted to Nature in the mid-’90s.

‘Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research’

I recently read an PLoS Biology Perspectives piece — about how ‘the granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them’. I found it to be a very interesting read. Often, I look around myself and wonder how things got to be the way they are. I hear people saying that it’s ‘publish or perish’, and, understandably, I see them obsess about publications and publishing. It has always struck me as rather… unscientific.

The article criticizes the approach that granting agencies take in giving funding, and discusses the resulting negative effects. I wonder if anything can change — perhaps any time soon. The article ends with this statement: “…only false objectivity is offered by evaluating real people using unreal calculations with numbers of papers, citations, and journal impact factors. These calculations have not only demoralised and demotivated the scientific community, they have also redirected our research and vitiated its purpose.”