Professor Amade M’charek: anthropologist explores the ‘tribe’ of scientific researchers

“The best scientists are at least as good at networking and communicating as they are in thinking and researching”

As if is she is exploring a remote tribe, professor Amade M’charek follows scientific researchers with her notebook and pen. How do they work and behave? How are their relationships? Their contacts with the outside world? What do they pay attention to? And for what they have no regard?

Professor Amade M'charek (UvA, Amsterdam).“This is an anthropological method invented by the likes of Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar that origins from classical fieldwork the way Margaret Mead carried it out. In this case it investigates in a lab how knowledge is created. If you look at scientists in this way, you will see things that you will never distract from their scientific publications. Science is like an iceberg – most of it is usually immersed under water, in the routines of the lab”, says Amade M’charek, professor of anthropology of science at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Recently she investigated how genetic knowledge comes about in the famous laboratories of the forensic geneticist Peter de Knijff (Leiden) and Svante Pääbo (Leipzig), who specializes in evolutionary genetics. M’charek performs her inaugural lecture in Amsterdam on September 18th 2015.

Importance of the network
An example of tribal behaviour of scientists is the ritual of exchanging favours and presents with the ones they want to be connected to. M’charek: “Science is an international activity based on the circulation of people and materials, ranging from the chocolates brought by a visiting peer from abroad, to samples or data. That kind of traffic is a variation on the gift exchange cultures that anthropologists have described so well in a variety of other situations.” Professor M’charek acknowledges that an extremely brilliant scientist who lacks a network of professional relationships, could hardly become successful: “The best scientists are at least as good at networking and communicating as they are in thinking and researching.” But she also notes that “self-reflection is not highly esteemed by scientists” – they still seem to first worry about the number and ranking of their publications.

Comparing the way of working between Peter de Knijff and Svante Pääbo, M’charek describes a huge contrast. De Knijff’s laboratory is very organized and practically layed-out – well suited for efficient and systematic forensic science, clean and down-sized like a ‘village of science’ where one works from nine to five. Pääbo’s lab is the opposite. A creative metropolis that runs 24/7, not missing one opportunity to discover or invent something – even if it was in the middle of the night. Untidy too, compared to De Knijff’s place. But comfortable. All facilities are there to not interrupt the work: coffee bar, pizza oven, and sofa beds.

Source: summary of the interview by Martijn van Calmthout in ‘Sir Edmund’, scientific supplement to De Volkskrant, 12 September 2015. Read more about professor M’charek.

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