The Need for More Inquisitiveness in Science

Post written by guest blogger Dr. Howard Young, Principal Investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

Recently, I attended a seminar with talks given by two younger scientists.  The audience consisted mostly of fellows, postbacs and some students.  The subjects of the two talks were different and there was sufficient time for questions and a discussion.   To my surprise and disappointment, other than my questions, only one other question was asked and it did not come from a trainee.   I left the seminar wondering why younger scientists are not more inquisitive with respect to science outside of their personal domain.

A few of my colleagues have suggested some possible explanations for the lack of questions. Maybe cultural differences are to blame, since  in some cultures it is not considered appropriate to question more senior individuals.  Others suggested that the presence of senior scientists at a seminar is intimidating and younger fellows would not want to take the chance of embarrassing themselves in front of these individuals.  Another possible explanation could be that the seminar was so far out of their field that they were completely lost from the start.   Even if any of these were true, we still need younger scientists to learn to be more active in the discussion of science.

So, how can we encourage inquisitive questions?

  • Mentors should make an effort to stress that curiosity is encouraged and active participation in seminars and meetings through questions and input is expected.
  • Talk about how being inquisitive in science is necessary, regardless of your culture and you standing on the “totem pole.”
  • Stress that an open and inquisitive mind is needed for whatever career path a scientist chooses.
  • Model good questioning, and perhaps provide a “seed question” that will get the thought processes rolling.

To help frame your own questions, think about three things:
1) How can the speaker help me with my research?
2) How can I help the speaker with their research?
3) Why am I at this talk?

In truth, there are no easy or foolproof answers to this issue.   Please let us know your suggestions and thoughts about how you learned to ask questions and be inquisitive.

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