I can still remember the horror of discovering that everything I had worked on was wrong. I was a PhD candidate just starting my second year, and my supervisor and I had developed a test for rheumatoid arthritis which seemed a revelation. We wrote a paper for a prestigious journal but just before we sent it off, we decided to do one more experiment to check we were correct.

We weren’t. Everything that I had done in the last year was ruined and I had to start an entirely new research topic. It was a tough but valuable lesson for a young scientist – you should always go further to test your ideas.

That was 35 years ago, and I wonder if someone starting out as a researcher today would be encouraged as I was to go the extra mile. Does the incessant drive to publish and measure outcomes mean that researchers are under pressure to cut corners, and have less time and freedom to pursue their ideas?

The Wellcome Trust – one of the world’s largest funders of health research – recently launched a review of research culture, to find out if research has become so hyper-competitive that it “cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved”.

What helped me develop as a researcher was reading stories about those who came before me. For scientific research to be successful in the long term, I think researchers need a strong set of values, including an unwavering commitment to the truth, and a drive to test any idea to destruction.

Though they may seem opposed to the ideals of the rigorous scientific method, the best way of instilling these values is, as ever, through the stories and myths that we tell ourselves.

The power of stories

In ancient times, people would sit around their fires at night and tell stories. Stories about their creation, stories of great deeds and feats, and stories that rehearsed how people interacted with each other and the world they lived in. One of the oldest of these still to be read is the ancient Greek Illiad of Homer.

The story explores what it means to be a warrior and leader, how people should accept fate, achieve fame and the consequences of pride and anger. Young people listening to those stories learned what was expected of them, reinforcing the collective values and beliefs of society.

In the modern world, myths and stories still have an important role to play – even in scientific research. Scientists have stories about important people and great events in science, such as the discovery of penicillin, uncovering the structure of DNA, the development of vaccines and the battles that Galileo and early proponents of a sun-centerd model of the solar system fought with the reactionary forces of the Church. Together, these stories help young scientists understand the collective benefits of research that go beyond personal advancement and success.

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