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Tag Archives: Guidance

Science Fair or Unfair?

Science gets up in Claire Gallop’s grill and she shares the fall out and the lessons.

Science Festival

The last science controversy I was involved in was when I refused to go on the 7th Form (Year 13) Biology Camp on the grounds that I didn’t like the outdoors.  Since then I have managed to avoid the difficulties inherent in the sciences by staying indoors, working alone and sticking to non-problematic subjects like politics and philosophy.

My recent science scandal crept up on me, but in hindsight was entirely predictable.  It’s been Science Fair time. Or, as it perhaps should be known, take a newly minted teen (NMT) add a science project and watch the family chaos ensue time.

The first issue arose when the NMT decided to do a project with a friend.  Coordination problems and disputes over who was going to do the glory experiments meant that collaboration was dissolved in less than ideal circumstances.

These issues paled in comparison to the real difficulties that emerged.  Chief among the problems were intellectual property disputes, legitimate authorship and inequitable commercialisation.  Given that the mother-child collaboration is not so easily dissolved, these issues have required resolutions focused on mediation and compromise (mostly by me).

A tame academic (Dr X) came up with the idea for the experiment.  After considerable negotiation, and the school teacher giving the project the nod, it was deemed acceptable to the NMT.

After consultation between Dr X and me, the hypothesis was honed and the method was devised.  The NMT demanded I bought the necessary materials.  I then bought the materials.  The other half (OH) then built the testing apparatus.

After some energetic negotiation, the NMT performed the necessary experiments.  Some further even more vigorous, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiation took place and I found myself writing the project up.  The NMT cast an editorial eye over the work and indicated where I needed to make corrections; the outcome of that interaction is probably best forgotten.

Nevertheless, something was produced and OH got to work on sticking the work on to the Science Fair board.  The NMT did some excellent work on decorating the board including the addition of the author’s name (“you forgot to put my name on!  How could you???”).

With promises of a cut of any prize money that was won (a cut that instantly got reduced the moment it looked like real money was going to change hands) my brush with science came to an end.

The whole process left me thinking about some of the conflicts I have seen between students and supervisors.  Issues around legitimate role in the project; was I the PI because I’d fronted with the cash?  Was Dr X the PI because he came up with the idea?  Was the NMT the PI because, let’s face it, the rest of us were simply acting as research assistants?  Even when it is clear who the PI actually is, disgruntlement can occur when people reflect on their actual levels of involvement as opposed to what they were expecting to happen.

Add a publication to the mix and real issues arise if people perceive they have received inadequate recognition for their contribution.  Mid-way through the Science Fair project was not the time to work out the division of labour, authorship order or royalties.  By that time, we were all sure of our entitlements in the project and were less able to view the issues with an impartial eye.

All of these things speak to the need to establish guidelines before work begins.  We are all hopeful at the beginning of any project that things will pan out without any need to give any real attention to tricky matters of who does what and what that means for how the project will go.

Relying on shared understanding of expectations and norms rarely works out well.  Conflicts may occur and without any recognition of rules to deal with them, small niggles can escalate and bitterness and anxiety can easily develop.  A lot of energy gets absorbed resolving issues that feel dreadful but were initially quite manageable.

A Student-Supervisor Agreement and an honest assessment of expectations at the beginning of any thesis journey will not rule out conflict, but a willingness to engage with the possibility that the ride won’t always be rainbows and unicorns certainly helps to set the right tone for a productive collaboration between student and supervisor.

And what did I learn from all this?  Well I’ve started drafting a Supervisor-Student agreement for next year when Science Fair comes around again.  I’ve also learned to have a bit more faith in group projects.  When it came time for the NMT to explain and defend the topic, I was slightly concerned; beyond effective project management, what on earth had they actually learned?  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a clear overview of the methods, results, and conclusions of the project.  Moreover, there was a new found enthusiasm for and confidence about science.

Who knew? It seems Science does have a few things to teach the Humanities after all.

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School