Science isn’t a top-class sport: it’s a human endeavour

Science isn’t a top-class sport but a human endeavour, says columnist Dirk-Jan Scheffers – with the emphasis on endeavour.

Last week, I received news that I’d been chosen—not for a job but to cycle through the Dolomites next July with my college buddy Jeroen and 7,998 others.

Like many middle-aged men, I cycle regularly, and a planned tour through the mountains is a great incentive to keep fit. To make it more enjoyable, I don’t just ride on the road or in the beautiful Groningen countryside anymore, but also through forests or in sunny foreign lands.

Beautiful climbs and great coffee stops at terraces, observed by tourists and locals alike (loosely quoting The Rider by Tim Krabbé). My in-laws live close to Valencia in Spain, and according to my partner, I know the area there better than they do. I think she might be right. The VAM hill near Wijster is nice, but it doesn’t compare to Port de l’Oronet.

Among scientists, there are many cyclists, perhaps even more runners. Both sports can be done alone, which is convenient with a busy schedule.

The VAM hill near Wijster is nice, but it doesn’t compare to Port de l’Oronet

A solitary bike ride also offers the chance to casually let your thoughts wander about work—or not, because when you force it, you return none the wiser. A grant application, a talk that needs preparing, an article, or a column—things you can calmly mull over in your head while cycling.

Speaking of columns, science, and sports; some columnists like to compare science to top-class sports. There have been big pieces written about the competitive aspect, hard work, and the ‘team spirit’ needed to succeed in science.

Much less often discussed are the mental issues, abuse of power, glorification of the team’s superstar, and cheating. Issues seen in top-class sports but also prevalent in a scientific environment driven by a ‘top-class sports mentality.’

Much less often discussed are abuse of power, glorification of the superstar, and cheating

Just look at the recent scandal involving American neuroscientist Zlokovic. This man appears to have literally risked lives.

His overly promising test results for a potential drug for stroke recovery led to an accelerated clinical trial in patients. That trial has been halted. Data analysis experts now question experiments in 35 (!) of Zlokovic’s scientific papers. Former colleagues say that he only focused on results confirming his hypotheses.

Science isn’t a top-class sport but a human endeavour, with the emphasis on endeavour. If you occasionally want to feel like a top athlete, you can, for instance, on the slopes of the Oronet. Until you get overtaken by a local talent, that is.

DIRK-JAN SCHEFFERS

Dutch

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