Earlier this week, my colleague Neil Gemmell released the results from his year-long hunt for the Loch Ness monster.
As expected, the story attracted enormous media attention. Also, as expected, it attracted some criticism from fellow scientists pointing out how unnecessary it is to conduct such a large-scale experiment to find something that every sane person and certainly every serious scientist will agree is not there. Much of this criticism comes from colleagues who I greatly respect and whose work I admire, and the criticism will not change that.
But, dear colleagues, on this particular occasion you are wrong. Studies like this are not only necessary, but overdue.
To understand this, we need to look a bit more closely at what this study was meant to achieve. On a scientific level, it is one of the most exhaustive biodiversity surveys of multiple Scottish Lochs, which provides a baseline for future monitoring of these sensitive ecosystems. It provides insights from microbial diversity to the impact of invasive species, it was conducted by some of the leaders in this field of research and I expect that it will be published in a high-profile peer-reviewed journal. Great! Woohoo!
BUT, how many kids will read it, let alone be inspired by it to become a scientist? How many teenagers will look at a paper on “using environmental DNA to reconstruct the biodiversity in Scottish Lochs as a basis for future biomonitoring” and think: That’s what I want to study?
I am sure most people will agree with me about the importance of providing such inspiration. But if you are unsure why it should be important to get children excited about science, let me give you some examples. In fact, let me give you close to a thousand examples currently seriously ill in Auckland alone with a disease (measles) that could be extinct by now if there was not a sufficient number of people that rather believe in a global conspiracy of scientists, politicians and the pharma industry than in unequivocal scientific evidence.
And how can a person be elected the leader of the free world who claims there is no climate change, while scientific evidence on the matter is clear and, in fact, people in the Pacific are already losing their homes to climate-induced sea level rises.
We desperately need people that understand the value of science. And what better way to raise awareness, than to get the next generation excited about science. What better way to get the next generation excited about science than using a proper scientific approach to test a question that many can relate to: “Is there a Loch Ness monster? How can we test this scientifically?”
I am sure we are all convinced of the importance and seriousness of our work, but sometimes what it takes to make an impact is to loosen up a bit.
I am now going to prepare my little one’s birthday party, and I am sure he and his mates will love this story, and maybe some of them will ask their parents afterwards: “How can I become a scientist”. And that is when you know this study was all worth it.