Longtime readers of the previous incarnation of this blog knew me as “Dr. Free-Ride”. Most of them, however, never asked where that pseudonym came from. As it happens, the source of the pseudonym was a class discussion (in my “Ethics in Science” course) that, by its very liveliness, inspired me to start the blog in the first place.
The class discussion was about whether those with scientific training are morally obligated to practice science. Some (like Kristin Shrader-Frechette, in her book Ethics of Scientific Research) have argued that trained scientists have a positive duty to do scientific research because:
- society has paid for the training the scientists have received (through federal funding of research projects, training programs, etc.)
- society has pressing needs that can best (only?) be addressed if scientific research is conducted
- those few members of society who have specialized skills that are needed to address particular societal needs have a duty to use those skills to address those needs (i.e., if you can do research and most other people can’t, then to the extent that society as a whole needs the research that you can do, you ought to do it)
It’s an interesting claim to examine with a classroom of science majors. How do you suppose it went over?
Since it was early in the term and I was still working to break the ice — to get the class past polite discussion and into the ring to wrestle with the claims they were reading — I decided that it was only fair to put myself up as a test-case. Am I a bum — a free-rider — by virtue of having scientific training but living the life of a philosopher? That self-examination was the very first post of the original “Adventures in Ethics and Science”, which I reproduce in its entirety below the fold.
I got a Ph.D. in chemistry, funded in large part by the taxpayers. I am not, however, a practicing chemist. So, the burning question of the day is whether this means I’m falling down on my duties to society. Let’s start filling in the balance-sheet:
I didn’t pay any tuition for my graduate classwork … but the university was paid (by the fellowship support) for numerous units that weren’t actually classes (e.g., for research, teaching, and seminar). I won’t broach the subject of whether every course I took was actually worth the money the university exacted for it.
I got training on very expensive equipment … but I also did a lot of work on that very expensive equipment. A lot of work. And I brought a research project or two to completion and shared that knowledge through journal publications.
I got paid a graduate stipend for the work I did in the lab and teaching … but the hourly wage equivalent was a step above sweatshop (maybe even if you include the taxpayer’s contribution to my tuition). And, one hopes, I made a real contribuition to the undergraduate education of the students I TA’d. Also, I may have failed a pre-med or two who would, if allowed to become a med student, have killed someone.
My training equipped me to conduct serious research in physical chemistry … my temperament, maybe not so much. Also, no part of me was terribly interested in the amount of grant-writing and lab administration that would have been required of me as a principal investigator. (Plus, it didn’t seem fair that I probably would have had to delay or skip having kids altogether to survive academic chemistry.)
Plausibly, I could have been a chemist in industry … although I might have had to lie about having a Ph.D., since it’s harder to get an industry job with a Ph.D. sometimes than with an M.S. And I don’t really like the culture of industry. And I might have ended up spending more time solving the shareholders’ problems than solving society’s problems.
Possibly I’m making more of a contribution to society — even from the point of view of its scientific needs — as a philosopher than I would have been making as a chemist. For example, I’m helping broaden the general understanding of science among the citizenry (in my philosophy of science course — and in the cable broadcasts of the lectures that innocent bystanders might encounter while channel surfing). I’m pushing scientific understanding of the methods of science just a little bit further in my research in the philosophy of chemistry. And, I’m participating in the training of fresh scientists on issues of responsible conduct of research.
So maybe the taxpayers don’t need to come after me for not being a scientist. They’ll have to find some other good reason.