November 25th, 2019

Waste as a Lens into our Culture of Science


Rebecca Delker

Columbia University in the City of New York, USA



To confront our waste problem, we may first have to confront our culture

Despite the centrality of waste in our everyday lives, we devote very little thought to it until our waste removal systems fail, forcing to the forefront of our streets and our minds not only the content of our waste, but the quantity. In this moment in which we live, circumscribed by an almost compulsory acceptance of our impact on the world, we’ve come to realize that despite our efforts to rid ourselves of our waste, it is never actually gone when considered from a vista that holds in view the whole and the many nodes of connectivity within that whole.

An ever-growing awareness of our waste production – particularly plastic – has set in motion a cultural trend that prioritizes waste reduction; but, the waste we generate in science labs has largely been afforded special status such that I, a fairly eco-conscious scientist, can simultaneously take on the extra burden to minimize waste at the grocery store, but not hesitate to maximize my waste to minimize my burden in the lab. Thankfully, but perhaps inconveniently, this is changing. Individuals within the scientific community, and out are beginning to see lab waste for what it is; and, there is an increasing imperative to take action because, much like our waste, the impacts of what we do (or don’t do) in the lab reverberate through networks that extend far beyond ourselves [1,2,5,7].

Admittedly, the problem hasn’t been well-defined. There are no solid numbers on how much waste we generate in research, or what waste exactly is – from single-use plastics, to the energy consumption needed to run labs, to the burning of fossil fuels for work-related travel. An estimate from 2015 focused solely on plastic waste production came up with an astonishing and dismal number: extrapolation from an accounting of waste produced within a single biology department at a single university led researchers to believe that the bioscience research community could be generating as much as 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste annually. This is ~2% of the total annual plastic production, a fraction much larger than that of the number of individual researchers relative to the global population [5,6]. A lack of solid numbers, though, should not deter us from admitting what we know from experience – we generate a lot of waste – at least enough to warrant efforts to properly quantify the problem, and to begin to ask ourselves ‘why?’

Balanced precariously between barreling forward as is and halting research altogether must lie the solution, which, itself, must balance the efforts of individuals, universities, and for-profit companies. Efforts by companies to innovate both new materials for common lab consumables and/or the more efficient use of materials will undoubtedly be part of the solution, as will efforts by research institutes to improve recycling and the construction of facilities with greater energy efficiency (two useful resources to refer to are My Green Lab, and LabConcious [8,9]). However, to focus only on these solutions not only ignores the responsibilities we have as individual researchers, but also overlooks a potentially profound connection between our culture of science and the waste we produce. After all, no matter the extent of our innovations, conducting science will always be resource-intensive, and thus will always have a “sustainability problem” [2]. But, if we allow ourselves to open our eyes to science waste we may be permitted a unique lens to interrogate our pursuit of science in ways that uncover avenues that are less wasteful while still propelling us toward progress.

Scholars who have invested energy into the study of waste look at waste in two different ways: (1) as a direct means of examining human culture (“we are what we throw away”), and (2) as the by-product of us – the stuff (material and non-material) we eschew in the act of defining ourselves and what is of value (“we are what we don’t throw away”) [3,4]. It may seem like an impossibility to hold these dichotomous views of waste simultaneously, but doing so can help uncover the relationship between our culture of science and the tangible waste we produce.

Taking a dumpster dive through our lab waste clearly exposes the first perspective: our trash can tell us who we are. Biohazard bags full of single-use, plastic items point to the fast-pace of research and the daily decisions we make to sustain this practice through convenience and doubling (or sometimes tripling) down on parallel avenues in the pursuit of quicker results. But, the relationship between our culture of science and our waste becomes much more pronounced with an appreciation of the second perspective, where the key is to see waste not only as the tangible stuff of perspective one piling up in our bins, but as metaphorical stuff too. It is the stuff that causes us to look up from our benches, our results, or our computers to say, “that was a waste.” It is here in these metaphorical throw-away moments that we can see the second perspective at play: our waste is not us – that is, it is what we have deemed of little to no value in our efforts to become successful scientists, have successful projects, and move the scientific enterprise forward.

“Negative” data is perhaps the best example of this because it bridges the divide between perspective one and perspective two waste. Whether the data is a physical object (e.g. a gel, a film, an image) or a series of numbers on a screen, something is being thrown away – or more likely hidden away in the infamous “bottom drawer.” But the very name, “negative” data, suggests the existence of perspective two: it is waste because it subtracts from, rather than adds to our narrative. In other words, it is waste in a metaphorical sense, with the metaphor extending well beyond the data itself – reagents wasted, money wasted, hypotheses wasted, our time wasted.

But, what if instead of metaphorical we said culturally-defined? “Negative” data is waste because it is culturally defined to be waste. To accept this is to begin to reckon with one of the most intellectually discounted components of research – the idea that science itself has a culture. To appreciate this, time travel in an imaginary world from the time when a single person asked a scientific question to a time, similar to now, when millions of people are simultaneously asking questions. If we could watch the intervening time compressed as in a time-lapse footage of an urban landscape, we would see the piece-meal construction (and periodic deconstruction) of scaffolding that not only guides the questions asked (research prioritization), but the ways in which they attempt to answer those questions (epistemology and methodology). We would see these scaffolds get modified over time in response to new information, in response to the growing community, including their individual perspectives and their reactions to the ideas of their predecessors, in response to a disposition to sort the good from the bad, perhaps even in response to the flow of ideas between the scientific world of our imaginary scientists and their greater social world.

These scaffolds are their culture and our own – a way of life, or in this case a way of doing science. And, if we could watch our imaginary world unfold, we would see the scientists as both the architects of culture, as well as its inheritors. This is the tension at the heart of cultural change, no matter how real or imaginary the world: while our larger culture may constrain the pool of possible actions we can take, only we are capable of changing our culture.

This is not an argument that science as a human culture is innately bad. In fact, our tendency to portray science as distinct from our humanity leads us to downplay the integral role of human influence to generate scientific knowledge. In effect, this causes us to see instances like the bottom drawer effect as a breakdown of the scientific system as a whole – an infiltration of the subjective into the objective – as opposed to a breakdown in our efforts to intentionally cultivate and critically evaluate our ways of doing science. We, not just the data, are a fundamental part of the scientific process. Thus, to work toward the ultimate goal of our scientific efforts – the creation of an accurate representation of the natural world, ourselves included – requires us to examine our scaffolding to reveal the underlying concepts that guide our approach to scientific knowing and ultimately structure the more recognizable aspects of our culture. It is these structures that determine the makeup of metaphorical waste, and as we will see, the makeup of our tangible waste.

Our conceptualization of data as “negative” is inseparable from many other aspects of our science culture: a skewed perception of science as results as opposed to science as process, an emphasis on the quantity of data produced and the quantity of papers published, and our devotion to the hypercompetitive environment in which the individualized narrative format of scientific papers are the necessary building blocks of scientific knowledge. Efforts that don’t meet these cultural standards are deemed a waste. “Negative” data is negative, “positive” data is positive, as is the length of my CV and first-authorship. But this waste does not remain in the metaphorical space; it has direct consequences for how much tangible waste we produce. When we throw away our efforts because they don’t meet the cultural standards, we throw away not only the tangible resources that were used, but those that are required in our subsequent steps to offset our earlier “missteps.” Our drive to succeed within the constraints of our scaffolds drives our daily activities – the priorities we set, the decisions we make, and the actions we take – that directly result in the quantity and type of waste in our bins. Thus, perspective one and perspective two waste, though superficially incompatible, are inextricably connected: the stuff that we define as not us (our metaphorical waste) drives the production of the stuff that best represents us (our tangible waste).

To confront our waste problem, we may first have to confront our culture.

Redefining what constitutes perspective two waste by redefining our culture can both make science better and shrink our mountain of waste. But, understanding this connection leaves us, the inheritors and architects of our culture, with a deceptively simple question: how?

How do we define perspective two waste? How should we?

How does our culture impede scientific progress and generate excessive waste?

How do we change this?


Dr. Rebecca Delker is a Molecular and Cell Biologist interested in how the genome is organized and regulated to produce diversity. Having received her BS at University of California, San Diego, and her PhD at Rockefeller University, she is currently a Postdoctoral Scientist at Columbia University in New York City. Rebecca approaches her work with a broad lens, understanding science as an expression of who we are as people; thus, beyond the questions she asks of the cell, Rebecca is interested in interrogating our process of science, using the answers to guide the future of science. Her writing on these topics can be found at ScizzleBlog and On Being.


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  8. Lab Conscious.
  9. My Green Lab: