Who is a scientist?

T. Ryan Gregory asks this important question: Who is a scientist? It’s a followup to a post titled: “Graduate students are not professional scientists. Discuss,” which – briefly – argued that grad students are scientists in training, not yet scientists-full-stop. In the later post, he explains:

Here are the criteria I threw out off-handedly for the purpose of discussing the NYT story about science blogs [this one -Josh]:

– Does scientific research for a living,
– Publishes research in peer-reviewed journals,
– Is funded by granting agencies to do it,
– Does not just write about it, or study it, or do some of it as a grad student, or only teach it.

This wasn’t an official or proposed definition, as indicated by the qualifier “For the purpose of this post”. Others have raised objections to one or more of these. I don’t think they are all necessary and certainly none is sufficient. So, let’s go through the exercise and think of some criteria that would distinguish a “professional scientist”. Nowhere in here is there an implication that graduate students, industry scientists, government scientists, postdocs, or anyone else doesn’t “do science” when they are engaged in research, so let’s get beyond that straw man if we can.

As I noted in the last post, lots of people want to be called “scientist”, presumably because it carries some prestige. But if anyone who does an experiment is a “scientist”, then the term isn’t meaningful at all.

So, assuming that we want the term to mean something, what makes someone a scientist?

I disagree with his means of distinguishing grad students from “professional scientists.” To my mind, a professional scientist is someone who is paid to do science. Grad students are usually paid to do science (either directly, as research assistants, or through teaching assistantships awarded to support them while they conduct their research), and are therefore professional scientists.

Publication in peer-reviewed literature is an important step in the process of science, but it is a lagging indicator and does not belong on the list in that form. Doing work one intends to publish, and which one presents to legitimate scientific peers for review (even through informal channels) should suffice. And I don’t know why Gregory insists that the research must be funded by granting agencies. Scientists in industry or working for a government agency and supporting their research out of an operating budget are still professional scientists if they are doing legitimate science and being paid to do it. People getting funds from a granting agency but not doing legitimate science are still not scientists (e.g., homeopaths, cold fusion, astrology, woo of other sorts).

But saying that a professional scientist is someone who gets paid to be a scientist just brings us back to the closing question from that quotation: “what makes someone a scientist?”

It’s helpful to consider some examples: Charles Darwin did not get paid to conduct scientific research. He had no academic degrees in science (or natural philosophy). But he was, by calling and by mindset, a scientist. He lived in an age where science was shifting from a gentleman’s pursuit to a professional career option (like doctor or lawyer or parson), which makes the comparison somewhat illegitimate. Yet it also emphasizes that “professional scientist” is not an age-old category, and this debate is one that has a relatively brief and as-yet-unresolved history.

A slightly more modern example, Albert Einstein, did impressive scientific work while working as a patent clerk. The scientists who built the first atomic weapons were not grant-funded, but certainly advanced our understanding of fundamental physics as they were hurtling the world toward a fearsome future. The datasets generated by volunteer birders through Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts are invaluable resources for ornithologists and ecologists. David Attenborough’s films have captured new animal behaviors and brought many people to a deeper interest in science and natural history. He and his production crew have become expert in natural history and biology, and have developed new tools to investigate and record that behavior. A whole field of hobbyist biotechnology is taking off in rented lab spaces around the world. A web software developer spends his spare time tinkering with what may turn into the future of nuclear fusion. Then again, many of the professors who get grants and publish papers spend so much time administering their lab and writing grants and advising students and preparing lectures that they may not conduct any actual experiments (though they do observe and supervise the students and postdocs who are performing the research funded by those grants). Which of these folks are scientists?

An auto mechanic or a plumber might apply the scientific method to fixing your car or your toilet, but neither they nor anyone else thinks that makes them scientists. They aren’t trying to increase our knowledge of the world, to derive general truths from their experimentation, and that’s the goal of science.

This also eliminates some but not all of the birders who contribute to CBC and BBS bird occurrence datasets. Being able to recognize a birdcall and check a bird off your life list is not doing science. Making systematic observations about the world is a key part of science, but if the goal is not to test hypotheses and to use that to generate some sort of synthesis, it isn’t science. But some birders, and some hunters and anglers, do make observations. They notice shifts in coloration or migration, and try to catalog and explain those shifts. They may lack the formal training and structure necessary to present their results at conferences or in journals, but I’m unwilling to say that they are not doing science, to say that they are not scientists in those moments. We’ll call this science as an activity. It’s something someone can do or not do, not a defining personality trait. It does not label the person, only the activity.

Darwin and Einstein were scientists wherever they went, whatever they did. Their mind were inexorably wired to constantly strive after organizing principles, and to find ways in the most mundane observations to test those principles. This is science as a mindset – science as avocation/vocation. I think David Attenborough shares that mindset, as does Richard Dawkins, though neither is currently pursuing a career in science. Dawkins shifted from employment as a biologist to become Professor for Public Understanding of Science in 1995, and has since retired to run a nonprofit foundation devoted to public advocacy on behalf of skepticism, atheism, science, and rationalism; all valid goals but not inherently scientific actions.

A successful grad student must be someone who pursues science in that latter sense. Some people leave graduate school because they do not pursue science in that sense (they are not scientists in that sense and do not want to become scientists in that sense), and others leave because they don’t want to pursue science as a profession (they are not interested in science as a career, though they have the mindset). Senior professors, the ones spending all their time administering a lab and serving on panels and so forth, are scientists in the sense that science is their calling, even though they spend little time doing the hands-on part of the scientific work.

Some people with no scientific training still manage to gain the knowledge necessary to participate actively in the scientific enterprise. The amateur fusion researcher is taking ideas that had been kicked around by professionals in the field, and is slowly testing those ideas in his own time. A fusion scientist of my acquaintance responded to the article linked above about a web developer building and testing a new fusion reactor:

He’s probably not achieving anything significant scientifically – but what a great hobby and learning experience for him, and what a great plug for fusion in general! Science, the olde fashioned way.

He’s doing science. Not huge science, perhaps, but breaking new ground. To say he isn’t a scientist because he isn’t grant-funded or hasn’t got a doctorate or is unlikely to publish in major journals seems to trivialize what science is, to make a PhD into a license to perform science rather than certificate of scientific accomplishment. And that impoverishes those with PhDs, those seeking PhDs, and those without PhDs who still want to and do contribute to the scientific effort.

So who is a scientist? I’d say: someone who seeks to expand the collective limits of knowledge about the natural world by developing generalized claims and testing them against empirical evidence. Science is an aspiration as much as an accomplishment, hence “seeks.” Expanding our “collective” limits means that it is necessary to communicate results to other relevant experts, and that those experts agree that new findings are interesting and correct. I don’t think a new occurrence record for a bird constitutes “science” in and of itself (though discovering a new species does), because new occurrence records to not, on their own, test some generalized principle (some such observations do test a hypothesis, and that’s a different story). Some scientists do that with thought experiments and observation, others through meticulous lab work, and others by watching stones sink into the sward of a country estate.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    August 2, 2010

    A scientist is someone who creates and tests models of the physical world with a view to sharing those models and the techniques used to create and test them with like-minded people. Science is a social enterprise – if you never expect to share knowledge of your model ever, even posthumously, then I don’t think you are doing science.

  2. #2 Rod
    August 2, 2010

    Thousands of genuine scientists work in business and industry, inventing, making and improving products, developing and optimising processes, using all the science tools in the kit. Many will never publish, but most will make a contribution to their employer in areas that define science: innovation, economy, alternates raw materials, energy, environmental issues… the list is endless. Science is where an organised methodical, technical approach is used to solve a technical/scientific problem, anywhere.

  3. #3 TR Gregory
    August 3, 2010

    Interesting take, but most of what you’re describing is “scientist”, not “professional scientist”. I also don’t think Darwin or Einstein are particularly useful examples, seeing as what we’re discussing is the modern incarnation of “professional science”.

    I used “professional” is a particular sense — having a profession or a career. Graduate school is not a profession. There is no suggestion that grad students are “unprofessional”, just that they do not yet have a career as a scientist. Put another way, they have research projects, not research programs.

    I have paid 2nd year undergraduates to do field/lab work for me for the summer. Are they scientists for the summer? (They are certainly doing science, in any case). If the definition is so broad, it’s pretty much meaningless. The problem is that people want “scientist” to be a prestigious term (or why argue about how it is defined?), but if anyone can be one, it’s not meaningful.

    I agree that grant-funded is not a necessary criterion. I included it in the initial post because it was referring to a NYT story about science blogs written by scientists other than those in industry (it was about the Pepsi industry scientists’ blog kerfuffle, after all). I was trying to distinguish between people who have science faculty positions but don’t do any research.

    I think the rather common comments that professors are administrators really misses the point. They have to know how to do the science they are proposing and overseeing. They have to design the experiments and explain the relevance to granting panels. They have to review the quality of science in manuscripts, both by their own group and their colleagues’. Many of them do still get out to the field or spend some time at the bench. However, the latter in some ways is the easiest part to learn — again, undergraduates with almost no experience can learn techniques and contribute excellent data. I don’t want to belittle the role of students who do the hard work day-to-day in the lab, but in my experience that is the easiest part to learn whereas the non-lab part is very difficult for many students.

    Anyway, it’s a very tricky thing to define, as I think we all have seen.

  4. #4 Jim Thomerson
    August 3, 2010

    Professional implies being paid so one can do one’s work. I have usually thought of scientists as those who publish in peer-reviewed literature. As some one said, “If it is not published, it did not happen.” A banker and an English professor published a new species description in a peer-reviewed journal. I reviewed the paper, and it was of the highest quality. They were being scientists, at least for a bit, by my perceptions. Amateur, I suppose, if we don’t see the appellation as implying substandard work.

  5. #5 Jed Rothwell
    August 3, 2010

    I have a collection of 3,500 papers on cold fusion, including 1,200 from peer-reviewed journals copied from the library at Los Alamos. I suggest you review this literature before commenting on this subject. See:

    http://lenr-canr.org

  6. #6 j
    August 3, 2010

    Science is not a bureaucracy. Nature is not democratic nor is it elitist or lend itself to the control of its principles to humans. As a graduate student within the first year I discovered stuff that had not been known and I was not even given credit for.
    So I can tell you a scientist is one who is dedicated to the pursuit of science in its essence.
    There is no other definition.

  7. #7 Marion Delgado
    August 4, 2010

    I also think disseminating science you know, if it’s not simply teaching textbook science – is “doing science.”

  8. #8 Apuleius Platonicus
    August 5, 2010

    Obviously anyone who makes an original and substantial contribution to science is a scientist, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t. Full stop.

    The aspiration to accomplish this is a fine and noble thing — in someone who has the necessary ability and the equally necessary passion and commitment. Otherwise it is a fool’s errand and one would be better off aspiring to something else.

  9. #9 Illuminatus
    September 27, 2010

    I tend to agree that that’s a poor definition of a scientist.

    1) There are a number of fields where amateurs make substantive contributions. (Someone mentioned biology. Astronomy also comes to mind.)

    2) There are fields (ie., computer science), where conference presentations are more important than journal publications, which are more for archival purposes than for presenting new results.

    3) There are fields of theoretical science where you really don’t need grant funding, like theoretical physics and computational neuroscience. (This is something that probably differs by country, though – for example, grad students in Canada are mostly supported by the department, rather than the advisor.)

    4) Brian Josephson won a Nobel Prize in physics for work he did as a grad student.

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