There is more than one way to be a scientist

by Anthony Greenberg, posted on Aug 6, 2018

There is a fascinating discussion happening on science twitter about what it means to be a scientist. It boils down to the question: is science just another job or is it some higher calling that demands total dedication? My colleague Lyza Maron wrote a particularly clear and compelling argument for the former. She gets at the crux of the problem here:

But if I was not doing science, and I did not even miss it, was I not a scientist anymore? Then who was I? It was a crisis of loss of identity that became evident every time I met someone new and they asked “What do you do?”

I think there are two somewhat separate sides to being a scientist. One is a set of mental habits and the other is a job description. A scientific mindset involves critically evaluating all information and making decisions using data, logic, and the scientific method. Individuals can use these habits of mind in everyday life whether they also work as a scientist in a lab or not. In this sense, changing jobs should not lead to a crisis of identity.

Obviously, in order to be a practicing researcher one must apply the scientific method while at work. However, it is not necessary to retain this mental habit once we leave the office. I have to confess that I have trouble relating to such switches emotionally because the hyper-analytical mindset is deeply ingrained in me. The first question in the back of my head every time I am confronted with new information is “How do we know that?” But setting my own imagination aside, it is clear that in practice there are plenty of people who are quite successful in their scientific careers but switch their minds to other modes outside of work. The overlap between the two aspects of being a scientist is far from complete.

To me, failure to make these distinctions is a significant contributor to the mess of unhappiness and unfulfilled expectations that seems to be so widespread in academic research currently. When I was entering the field, I understood the basic bargain to be: we take a hit financially in exchange for increased employment stability (principally in the form of tenure) and freedom to pursue our interests even if they are esoteric and have no immediate application. This bargain is now fundamentally broken. Academic scientists do give up significant money compared to those working in industry. However, the current funding climate and competition for jobs insures that the other side of the deal (stability and freedom to explore) are out of reach for the vast majority of researchers. Principal investigators are under immense pressure to maintain output measured chiefly in the number of publications and grant money, and all too often respond by using the lofty rhetoric of “science as a calling” to guilt trainees into unreasonable work loads.

Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect for the old arrangement to return. Those who argue that science is “just another job” are then on solid ground, especially when they advocate for sane working conditions. But I think that our field is suffering from a lack of imagination. For years, as the academic job market has worsened, the narrow conception of a scientist as someone who works at all kinds of odd hours in an academic lab has stubbornly persisted. Anyone deviating from this path is considered a sell-out. This attitude is toxic, but I confess that I subscribed to it for way too long. Moving into the field of plant breeding opened my eyes to many alternative possibilities. There are all kinds of paths to doing science in this area, spanning from (relatively) fundamental research at universities to applied projects in industry, with all kinds of intermediate arrangements at research centers around the world. There is also a greater geographical diversity. Every human community has its own problems, but I think fundamental science has a lot to learn about respect for alternative careers from agricultural fields.

Personally, I am interested in doing science hands on. I do not have much experience in teaching. While I enjoy mentoring junior colleagues, I cannot see myself being responsible for more than a couple of them at a time. This set of priorities does not sit well in the current academic environment, so I managed (so far) to make my own way by performing freelance work as a way to finance projects that interest me. Such a path is not for everyone, however. But whether you view science as just a job, as a world-view, or as a higher calling, there should be a place for you to contribute. It is past time for us to realize that there is more than one way to do it.