Privilege & culture at SMS

“With great privilege comes great responsibility,” This was the philosophy Katharina Gaus—founding Head of Single Molecule Science (SMS)—held on what makes a great research centre and what culture we want at SMS.

Ample funding and the latest technology, while beneficial, are not the sole foundations for creating a great research environment. There are certainly better known research institutes that have more money to spend and have better equipment than we do. So, what makes SMS SMS? I believe the people are key to our rich and dynamic research environment: the types of people, and how they work together and support each other are what shape the culture of any centre.

Culture is similar to democracy—it’s easy to destroy, but it’s much, much harder to build. And what democracy and culture also have in common is that neither can be created by one person, or even a few people. It takes everyone.

What culture do we want at SMS?

Justin [Gooding] recently reminded me of an old and rather bad joke: What’s the difference between people and a tub of yoghurt: If you leave the yoghurt out in the sun, it grows culture. It’s a bad joke, but there is truth to it.

Despite being a multi-cultural society, we are not so good at building a culture we can all be proud of in Australia. Instead, we just make rules. There is nothing wrong with rules—and you definitely need to follow Eunice’s rules in the lab, for example—but SMS should be more than just a bunch of rules

So, in thinking of what culture I would like to have at SMS, I slightly change a famous phrase that was coined by the French philosopher, Voltaire (or Spiderman’s uncle Ben, depending who you believe). We have all heard that with great power comes great responsibility.

At SMS, I believe that with great privilege comes great responsibility.

I think we all know that we are all privileged to be here, and to do what we do. To begin with, most of our funding, including the PhD scholarships, comes from tax payers. That’s money that individuals have earned and paid to the Australia government, which was not used to fund mining or the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, but instead was given to us. This is privilege.

To get here, each one of us has probably been given opportunity and encouragement by friends, family members, teachers, colleagues and others. Because, the truth is that there is such thing as “the right to do research”. None of us are simply entitled to do what we do. It’s a privilege to do research.

Now it is up to us to use our privilege with great responsibility, and do the best research we can do.

So next time you find yourself in a situation, at SMS, that is less than ideal, let’s do more than follow rules—instead, ask yourself: what is the responsible thing to do?

I think if we all act with responsibility every day, SMS can be the greatest research centre in the world. But more importantly, it will be OUR centre.

Photo by from Pexels

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