Marking and the downshifting of science

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?

Well the summers here and the time is right for… marking bloody student degree projects!

Yes, the summer for me (and Bernie) has once again bought the delightful mixture of bright sunny days, wine in the barmy evenings and cricket on the radio. This idle is only disrupted by the deafening thud of student’s degree projects hitting my study floor. As I write I am actually surrounded by piles of them. One quite small pile is where I’ve put those I’ve marked. Another much, much bigger pile (that has already fallen over sideways and now cuts me off from the door) comprises those yet to be marked and then two still unopened boxes contain the ones I need to double mark for colleagues.

In part my misery at my marking is just the shear weight of numbers, but another aspect, and I hate to say this, is reading pretty much the same stuff every year. Students tend to look at previous projects, pick out the best ones and re-do them with slight changes to variables or parameters. So rather than looking for the effect of one nutrient on plant growth, they’ll look at another. Instead of looking at the relative effectiveness of ‘commercial’ against ‘green’ washing powders, they’ll check ‘commercial’ and ‘green’ washing up liquid… and so on and on and on…

This approach is hardly the type that promotes the exciting projects that will attract students into science, but it’s not uncommon.

Even at the very highest level of science research the data flatters to deceive. In an editorial piece Charlton and Andras (2008) point out that although numbers studying science for research based degrees is up, but they have identified a so-called trend of ‘down shifting’ in UK science, a trend away from so called ‘revolutionary science’ (that which is paradigm shifting) to ‘normal science’; that which is an “incremental extrapolation of existing paradigms” (Charlton and Andras, 2008: p 466). There is certainly very strong evidence in my field of this taking place.

If we are not careful, graduate projects will become little more than practical sessions, where the project is evaluated not on its originality, but on the accuracy with which the generated data fits the published results. We stop looking at the anomalies, the negatives, the outliers and stay safely in the mainstream, constantly verifying that the Sun goes around the Earth.

It won’t be the funding cuts that kill UK science (though they’ll kick it unconscious) it will be that sort of mind set and the teaching that promotes it.

Sorry it’s a short blog, but I’ve got to get back to my marking. Two more and I’ll treat myself to the cricket, red wine and this rather lovely English summer evening.



Charlton, B.G. & Andras, P. (2008) ‘Down-shifting’ among top UK scientists – The decline of ‘revolutionary science’ and the rise of ‘normal science’ in the UK compared with the USA. Medical Hypotheses, 70(3) 465-472.

3 thoughts on “Marking and the downshifting of science

  1. Dear me, Dancing in the Street (a terrible song no matter how you look at it)…

    Anyhow, an interesting point, and I too have wondered about this very subject recently. I often see examples of it when students present me with the ideas they learned from their last professor’s class, where PhD student’s strive to become “mini me” clone’s of their supervisor, or when student’s sometimes ignore “barking mad” ideas I will throw at them as devils advocate.

    I was writing about peer pressure to conform last week, and I feel that this (whether conforming to student or teachers expectations) probably goes a long way to answer some of this (e.g. the infamous Solomon Asch test). It seems the way our brains have evolved to behave, and still appears difficult for us to break away from, despite our aspirations to become original scientists.


  2. Absolutely Bernie. It is this lack of inventive thinking that worries me. Just anecdotally, last year I attended one of those “Here are some ‘whacky’ ideas for Science Week” seminars. We started by having to make structures from dry spaghetti and Blue-tack. The tallest won a box of chocolates. Being cunning my colleagues and I started by sticking a big lump on the ceiling and building downwards. We ended up making a ground to floor structure about 3m high. Brilliant, the chocs were ours we thought! We were disqualified and a bunch of school teachers won with the ‘correct’ design! It’s the sense of injustice (and the loss of those chocolates) that makes this such an issue for me!

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