Scepticism and Collaboration: Alleyn’s Celebration of Science  

An enduring image from the last month is that of the Ingenuity helicopter hovering just above the surface of Mars. Not only did it show the remarkable progress of Science, but it highlighted the incredible collaborative capabilities and successes of human beings.  

But, as we were reminded by Dr Stuart Ritchie in this year’s RV Jones Science Lecture, humans are flawed, and despite its successes, the human endeavour of Science is prone to irrationality, error, and, in the words quoted from Charles Babbage (the father of computing) ‘hoaxing,’ ‘forging’ ‘trimming’, and ‘cooking’.  

So how do we protect science from its humanness?   

In this years’ Alleyn’s Celebration of Science, through a series of fifteen talks and events we were privileged to consider two crucial characteristics of scientists – true of all science students at Alleyn’s! – that ensure that the objectivity of Science remains:    

Scientists are Sceptics  

Firstly Scientists are sceptics: We think critically; we question and scrutinise before we refine and make conclusions. In our talk series, as we considered the science behind human-induced climate change the data presented was questioned and considered: What is behind short and long-term trends? Does correlation necessarily mean causality? Are there other explanations for the trends in data? As we learnt about the development of the NHS track and trace app, we considered what conclusions could be made from the information gleaned and what policies legitimately made as a result? And in a period littered with alternative facts and conspiracy theories, it was helpful to be reminded at the start of our Celebration of Science of the Royal Society's motto:  'Nullius in verba' - 'take nobody's word for it.’  

Scientists are collaborative  

Secondly, scientists are collaborative: As we share and build on each other's work, Science shows itself to be a diverse, transparent, inter-disciplinary endeavour that is international in scope, inter-connected, and necessarily communal. This became obvious in our talk series as we learnt about the multi-functional teams required to bring new medicines to market, the numerous partnerships required for the remarkable developments in Orthopaedics and Cardiology, and the vast cooperation and handed-on knowledge that has enabled us to manipulate material at the nanoscale and to identify and alter individual genes. Through these talks, it was so clear that little progress would be possible without interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships between people from multiple nations, skill-sets and experiences.    

Inter-disciplinary Science   

This latter point – inter-disciplinary learning – will be our main theme within the Science Faculty in the year ahead.  

In June this year, I am proud that Alleyn’s is to be hosting the annual HMC Heads of Science meeting – a get-together of 35 Heads of Science of leading academic schools in the UK. Our theme is ‘Inter-Disciplinary learning’ and to this end we are privileged to be welcoming Sir Jim Smith FRS (and a former Alleyn’s parent) to talk to us specifically about cooperation within the Crick Institute – that world-renowned model of inter-disciplinary research. 

We acknowledge that much of our tradition in Science, our syllabus, our job titles, even our buildings are shaped by a siloed approach to scientific discipline. But what is clear, is that the ‘real world’ is interdisciplinary in nature – indeed, it will surely become more so – and it is our aim at Alleyn’s to increase our inter-department and inter-school collaboration recognising the enormous benefits, richness and progress that come from a diversity of thought.   

Afterall, the flight of Ingenuity on Mars shows what is possible when disciplines work together.  

Ben Jones
Alleyn's Director of Science