I was presenting in our weekly lab meeting and I used the occasion to talk on a few different subjects (each of which will probably end up as a separate blog post). I started by trying to get people to think about the different things that scientists do and I offered my own list of suggestions:
The last item on the list is maybe not something that everyone thinks about. I believe that scientists should have some curiousity about their field (and about science in general) and one way that this can manifest itself is by asking questions.
I then sprang a surprise on the lab by revealing that for the last year, I've secretly been tracking which people ask questions in our lab meetings. The data is incomplete: I have probably missed some questions and not everyone has been to every lab meeting. Also, we have some new people in the lab who weren't here a year ago. But in any case, I showed the (anonymized) data which is showing how many times (out of 41 lab meetings) someone asked at least 1 question:
I stressed that it isn't automatically a good thing if you are on the left-hand side of the graph, and it isn't automatically a bad thing if you are the right-hand side of the graph. But clearly, we have some people in our lab meetings who ask more questions than others. I then shared some reasons for why I think many people do not ask questions:
The 2nd point is very common for younger scientists, and I fully understand that people can be nervous about asking what they feel might be a stupid question (especially to people that they perceive as being 'above them'). But if you don't understand something…then it is not a stupid question. It is only stupid if you never ask and instead sit through meetings being confused.
The 3rd point sometimes happens when it is the speaker who is the junior person and the audience doesn't want to risk giving them a hard time. It is laudable to be kind to others, but this doesn't mean that you can't ask questions. If nobody ever asked questions then scientists will never get the useful feedback as to which parts of their talks are confusing or unclear.
Learning to ask (and answer) questions is a useful, and necessary skill, for scientists. If you can't practice this skill in the relative safety of a lab meeting, then when will you practice it? I ended this section of my lab talk by pointing out that your scientific curiousity (or lack of) is something that may be used when people assess you (for job interviews, promotions etc.):