Since I posted a while ago on “why I am a scientist“, I’ve been thinking of what makes a scientist. This has been partially inspired by a post that Laelaps wrote a while ago, on whether to consider himself a scientist, and also brought to the front of Sci’s head by a post over at the Intersection, where someone started contesting whether or not Sheril is a scientist. My answer to both of you? HELLZ YEAH.
Many people have what seems to me to be a pretty restricted view of what a “scientist” is. To many people, including practicing scientists themselves, a “scientist” must obtain the following credentials:
- Training in a specific scientific subdiscipline, such as physics, biochemistry, or physiology
- A PhD
- A series of ongoing publications in peer-reviewed journals
- A position at an academic institution or research facility, public or private
All of these are necessary, but no one by itself is sufficient to call oneself a “scientist”. Interestingly, most of the people I find who consider these things to be important in whether or not they are a scientist are people who either already HAVE these things, or who wish very much to attain these things, as it is the career path they have chosen.
However, if you require all those things in the above list in order to be considered a “scientist”, you are narrowing the field to a very small subset of the population. Moreover, you are discounting a large number of people who, in some way or another, participate in to the scientific enterprise.
Historically, this definition of a “classic scientist” in the manner I outlined above, is really pretty new. It wasn’t so long ago that there was no such thing as public scientific funding, and very little in the way of graduate education in the sciences. The scientist of the day was the “gentleman scientist”, usually rich or well-off enough to do scientific studies in his free time, unless he was lucky enough to get hired by or start his own company to continue experimentation and development. Most of them were not scientifically educated at all. They were just smart, curious, and will to test and discount a hypothesis until they found an explanation for an unknown phenomenon. But by modern standards, most of these people, the Benjamin Franklins, Edward Jenners, Joeseph Listers, and Louis Pasteurs, are not “scientists”. What, then, were they?
And what do you call those who may be trained in science but are unable to pursue the traditional scientific career? Right now there is 1 post-doc position available for every 10 graduate students getting out of graduate school. That’s one leaky pipeline. When that 1 post-doc position is taken, what are the other 9 graduate students, each with their newly minted PhDs and their training in highly specific techniques, supposed to do? Are you going to tell all of those people, with their PhD’s, publications required for graduation, and mastery of what are often extremely difficult techniques, that they are not scientists? I don’t think so.
But many of them cannot go on to do science. They can, however, go on to teach, write, or otherwise disseminate scientific information, scientific techniques, and the scientific method to the public. They can help scientists deal with politics, performing the delicate translation from science-speak to political-eeze, enabling academic scientists to continue to do their work in a safe and affordable environment. They can go into the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies, helping academic scientists navigate the funding maze. They can even go on to edit the journals that academic scientists publish in, performing the dreaded “triage” to determine what will go into the peer-review process. I’m sure there are other avenues that I am missing.
And what about those who may not have a PhD? Who have cut their training short at some point to pursue other avenues of promoting science? Or who may be in the process of obtaining a PhD in the first place? I challenge anyone to look at what I do on a day-to-day basis and tell me I am not a scientist, though I may not yet have a PhD.
Would you say that all these people are not scientists? I wouldn’t. They remain interested in science and acquainted with what is going on in their fields. They may not be at the bench or out in the field collecting data and publishing papers (or they might be), but they are still closely associated with the scientific enterprise. So what should be the requirements for being a “scientist”? Should there be requirements at all?
A scientist is someone with curiosity. Someone who desires to know about the world, to discover mechanisms or technologies that have not been discovered. Someone who uses the scientific method to solve problems and logic to look for potential avenues for solutions. A scientist is also someone who is consistently learning and using what they learn to teach others. To teach others how to use the scientific method and how to utilize their curiosity to find answers is to be a scientist. Scientists are perpetual students themselves, constantly seeking to learn and understand more about their environment.
Hell, you know what? I like what wikipedia has to say:
A scientist, in the broadest sense, refers to any person that engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge or an individual that engages in such practices and traditions that are linked to schools of thought or philosophy. In a more restricted sense, scientist refers to individuals who use the scientific method.
That’s what I’m talking about. Scientists use the scientific method to explore the world around them, and engage in systematic activities to acquire knowledge. Whether that is through data collection or thorough reading of the literature, or whether it involves using the scientific method in daily life to communicate information, those people are scientists. Whether or not you have a PhD doesn’t change whether or not you have a scientific mind, and does not change whether you can use the scientific method. I may not have a PhD (yet…), but I AM a scientist.
But now I would to open it up to the masses (well, there aren’t exactly masses, but there are some awesome opinions out there). What makes a scientist? What am I missing?
Filed under: Academia