Thus Spake Zuska

Life as a Leak, Part 3

Well, just when I think I might be getting the migraines under control, I go and lose a whole week due to some mystery illness. It wasn’t a cold and it wasn’t the flu, but it sure did nail me to the floor for a week. I’m just getting back on schedule in my life. I’ll try to get the Joy of Science summaries posted tomorrow but discussion posts may not be till Thursday.

Anyway….I wanted to call your attention to a nifty post on the “life as a leak” subject over at Fairer Science. And back on March 20, Science Woman wrote a post on Why We Leave that is very good. The discussion in the comments section is well worth reading, too.

In the comments section on my post Life as a Leak, Part 2, a debate arose as to whether you can call yourself a scientist if you are not being paid to do lab research. Bill says emphatically no, and furthermore argues that it is an unhealthy worldview to think otherwise.

The primary component of Cult of Science indoctrination is the idea that not being a scientist means being a failure; that only science is worth doing, all other careers are somehow “lesser” occupations. This, I think, is the proper target: rather than claiming that a lecturer or clinical trial manager or whatever IS a scientist, we need to be rid of the insidious idea that being a scientist (by trade) is better than being any of those other things (by trade). And, as my parentheses there indicate, we also need to be rid of the idea that one IS what one DOES in return for a salary.

He goes on to say in a later comment:

I’m saying that who a person is is a much larger question that what they do for a living, and that it’s probably not a good idea to identify so completely with a job that “I am a scientist” becomes a sufficient answer to “who are you?”.

And yet, I think that graduate training in science or engineering encourages us to do just that, to form our identities around what we do. It’s a part of the process of professionalization and getting to join the club. It’s also part of what causes problems for women and minorities in finding acceptance in science and engineering. Identity formation is wrapped tightly with training as a scientist or engineer – one becomes a scientist or engineer. Traditionally, the identity of the ideal scientist or the engineer has been white and male. As we all strive to attain that ideal state of professional identity, some of us will have an easier time than others in matching up to all aspects of the ideal. Those responsible for training new scientists and engineers will find it easier to see a future scientist or engineer in certain kinds of people, but not in others. In other words: white men already look like they can be scientists and engineers. There’s no question about their identity. When you say “scientist” to someone, the image that comes to their mind is a white guy in a lab coat. The process of making that identity match between self and scientist is more costly and more problemmatic for women and minorities. This is something I’ll be discussing at more length in regards to one of the next Joy of Science readings coming up.

There are jobs that you do, and then there is work that is part of who you are. For many people, science and engineering fit into the latter category. It’s both a good and a bad thing. For most of my adult life, my identity was completely, or nearly so, meshed with what I did, and this made me happy – my work brought me pleasure. When I became unable to work because the chronic migraines, I felt I had lost myself. Who am I, if I have no career? I had to ask that question of myself literally, because for so long I had only ever thought of myself primarily in terms of my career.

Bill and Ryan would surely argue that I am clearly not a scientist/engineer at this point – not only am I not paid to do research, I’m not paid to do anything! But non-scientists in my life – family, friends – still understand me as a scientist, and come to me for advice and expertise on scientific and medical topics. I have come to understand that “scientist”, “engineer”, comprises part of who I am. It no longer makes the whole of me as I once thought it did, but neither can I say that it has nothing to do with who I am. I will always be, in part, a scientist and an engineer – whatever else I am.

If you are only a scientist if you are paid to do research, then what do you call all those people working at NSF? If your boss, the professor, writes the grant proposals, brings in the funding, and reviews your work, doesn’t actually do any lab research him- or herself anymore – is your boss still a scientist? So then, are most professors who are teaching chemistry and physics and biology at the universities scientists, or are they not?

You’re a scientist one day, working in the lab. Then you get fired – budget cuts, boss’s whim, whatever. One day you’re working, the next day you’re not. One day you’re a scientist, the next day you’re not? What has changed?

I think arguing for the strong definition of scientist as only someone who does research in a laboratory is a form of border-guarding that does not serve women and minorities well. Women traditionally have been, and continue to be, found doing science in unlikely or unofficial settings. (See Eisenhart & Finkel, Women’s Science: Learning and Succeeding From the Margins.) We have an academic system where women are to be found disproportionately in untenured and non-tenure track positions, and now we want to declare that someone in a lecturer position is not a scientist? I’m not buying it.

Bill thinks if we limit the title “scientist” to those doing research, we rob it of its cachet and defuse the Cult of Science, but I disagree. I think if we acknowledge that scientists are to be found doing many things besides just working at a bench, then we are spreading the wealth, so to speak. By not limiting “scientist” to the exclusive academic boy’s club, we recognize the real scientific work that women and minorities are doing outside the academy.

Engineers have been ahead of scientists on this for many years, I think. Engineers readily acknowledge that they are to be found in all sorts of places, not just on a shop floor or a construction site. In fact, it’s something that engineers are proud of – that training as an engineer enables one to pursue work in such a wide range of settings.

Bill mentioned clinical trial managers. Not all clinical trial managers are scientists. But those who are, bring something special to the job. In the pharmaceutical industry, it’s common to find nurses working in various roles; nobody says to them that they are no longer nurses. They are understood to have attained a certain professional status that they retain, even as they are performing a given role in pharma. I don’t see why the same can’t be said of scientists.

Ryan said:

If you (pretend to) do science and aren’t funded to do research in peer reviewed journals, there is a reason for that, its because your peers think your work is crap. I am being extremely blunt here because this is the reality of the situation.

Ah, the naivete of youth! There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why you may not be funded to do your research, none of which have anything to do with the quality of your work. This is perhaps the best reason for not defining scientist as those who do research, because those who do research depends upon those who can convince the powers that be to give them money and space. And since politics – of all sorts – plays such a role in these decisions, I’m not comfortable with letting politics decide who gets to be a scientist and who does not.

Comments

  1. #1 Karl
    April 2, 2007

    You are a scientist if you still think like a scientist. I, for example, am a teacher even though I an now retired from the work force and only got paid to be a teacher for 15 years of my work life – a long time ago. I think like a teacher, in whatever I do. For 25 years I was a computer programmer and database administrator, but I was always teaching others how to do things, or how to do things better. Now I play tennis and I find myself always showing others how to improve their games. I belong to a civic group interested in protecting the First Amendment. When the local paper prints letters to the editor with opinions about that topic, I respond with letters that EXPLAIN WHY it exists, why it is important, etc. I am always teaching. I am a TEACHER. YOU are a scientist. You ARE a scientist.

  2. #2 Ryan
    April 2, 2007

    Engineers have been ahead of scientists on this for many years, I think. Engineers readily acknowledge that they are to be found in all sorts of places, not just on a shop floor or a construction site. In fact, it’s something that engineers are proud of – that training as an engineer enables one to pursue work in such a wide range of settings.

    On the contrary, engineers are extremely picky about who can or cannot be called an engineer. In fact, if I refer to my friends in engineering as “engineers”, they usually point out that they are engineering students, not engineers.

    You can’t call yourself an engineer and go about building bridges if you are not. Just because similar laws don’t exist for sciences, doesn’t make you any less of a liar if you claim to be a scientist when you are not.

    In any case, this is sort of missing my point, it doesn’t matter what setting science is done in, as long as it is your job to do science you can call yourself a scientist.

    I honestly can’t understand what is so controversial about this definition.

    Ah, the naivete of youth!

    Ah the belligerence of senility! So quick to claim age as a determining factor in the validity of an argument, I have noticed this theme in some of your posts. Despite seeming to believe that race/sex is irrelevant in the correctness of an idea, you have no qualms about saying asinine stuff like this regarding people younger than you.

    There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why you may not be funded to do your research, none of which have anything to do with the quality of your work.

    My point is, that if you can’t convince someone to pay you to do science, there is probably a reason.

    I dispute the notion that politics plays a large role in the distribution of funding, however usually (at least in Canada), you send your NSERC application to the NRC, where a committee looks at your past performance, as well as your proposed research and decides if you are a safe bet. If they decide not to fund you, there is a reason. If you are going to claim that “politics” refers to a dispassionate examination of past performance as an indicator of future success, then we have bigger problems …

    It’s not like the NRC (or the US equivalent) is a huge old boys club who are more interested in keeping their friends funded than producing results.

    If you make a convincing argument that you will produce some real results, then the powers that be will have no problem giving you money. What’s more, if they gave you money previously, and you haven’t produced results, they find someone who will. At least in Canada, the distribution of money is in no way a lifetime endowment.

    There is a prof at my school who has tenure, but is not funded. He didn’t publish for a while and his grant got taken away. Now he just sort of hangs around and teaches his classes. In no way would I describe him as a scientist.

    Once again, being a scientist is a job. It doesn’t matter if you have the mindset of a scientist, or the heart of a scientist, if you don’t do science, you are not a scientist.

  3. #3 Lisa
    April 2, 2007

    What is so “controversial” about your definition, Ryan, is that it’s not the way most people use the word. (Also, I don’t think it’s the way people should use the word.) You can define “scientist” however you want in your own head, but other people won’t understand your use of the word because that is not how it is commonly used. Sure, there can be multiple definitions of the same word that are used in different contexts by different people, and we can argue about what the definition “should” be, but I really don’t think there are many people using the word the way you’d like. (for instance, look up “scientist” in a dictionary.)

    I don’t think Zuska called you “youth” to discredit your argument (does she know how old you are?–I don’t.) but rather because she thinks your comment sounded like something a naive, youthful person would say (I think it’s something an ignorant/belligerent person would say):

    “If you (pretend to) do science and aren’t funded to do research in peer reviewed journals, there is a reason for that, its because your peers think your work is crap.”

    About doing science without funding, someone already mentioned Mendel; there were lots of scientists like him and probably are today. There are many other examples–some people’s countries don’t fund much science, some people do research for companies which they can’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, some people leave science for some period of time and can’t get funding when they try to go back . . .
    Overall, you seem to be discounting anyone who follows a path other than a bee-line to a professorship at a major research university.

    As an aside, we could argue about how big a role “politics” plays in funding research, but obviously it plays some role, so according to this reasoning, whoever is right on the edge of having “crap” for research and has politics in their favor will get published while others with similar crappiness of research will not get published. You never said that all research published was not “crap”, but unless you feel there is an extremely small influence of politics, race, timing, or other non-science factors, then one can conclude that, since all the research which can’t get published is “crap”, then there is quite a significant amount of research published that is also “crap”. I find this overly pessimistic.

  4. #4 Bill
    April 3, 2007

    It’s not like the NRC (or the US equivalent) is a huge old boys club who are more interested in keeping their friends funded than producing results.

    Er, um, yes it is. Very much so, at least in Australia and the US (the only systems I’ve worked in). You would probably get a more equitable distribution of funds if you put the applicants’ names in a hat and picked ‘em out at random.

    The idea that the scientific infrastructure is any kind of meritocracy — that if your ideas are sound you’ll get funding, that if you don’t get funded it’s because you’re not good enough — is prevalent, pernicious and utterly false. Hiring, firing, tenure and funding are political decisions, and social factors play a powerful role in them. Science as a process or community does not work any more objectively or rationally than any other human process or community. I was very disappointed to learn this, but it’s so. (And these are factors that weigh disproportionately against women in science, as a quick tour of Zuska’s archives will show.)

    You can’t call yourself an engineer and go about building bridges if you are not.

    This is true, and I made the same argument, but Zuska points out above that there is something I failed to make explicit (and with which I think Ryan might agree). Whether or not you are paid to do science, you can do it; in the end, it’s the data that matter. Mendel was mentioned twice now; I think of friends whose birdwatching provides valuable data for local ornithologists, or professional astronomers working with backyard amateurs, and so on.

    The problem with this is what Zuska calls “gatekeeping” above. You can do real science no matter who you are, but in many cases you won’t be taken seriously even if your ideas are sound and your data are clean, just because you don’t have the right pieces of paper framed on your wall. It’s idiotic, but it’s true, and it goes back to what I said about science as a community being no more objective or rational than any other.

    But I think (to strain the metaphor) that Zuska’s position does not remove or open the gate, only shifts it a little. One of Zuska’s examples was the sudden job loss that is common in research:

    One day you’re working, the next day you’re not. One day you’re a scientist, the next day you’re not? What has changed?

    What’s changed is your job description, but if we argue that you are still a scientist then we need to look at what hasn’t changed. In this case, it’s your formal qualifications. I don’t see how that is a better basis for a definition than a job description. I could work as a teacher though all my degrees are in science — why define me as a scientist if it’s not what I do? Conversely, as others have said, you can do science (collect reliable information about the world of sense-perception by directed manipulation of that world) whether you have a PhD or not — so why put the gate at the entrance to the University if it should not stand at the entrance to the workplace?

    I return to the idea that the data are what matter. I think we might do best if we rob the job title “scientist” of its unnatural, cult-ish cachet, and put the focus back on what people are doing. Zuska:

    Bill thinks if we limit the title “scientist” to those doing research, we rob it of its cachet and defuse the Cult of Science, but I disagree. I think if we acknowledge that scientists are to be found doing many things besides just working at a bench, then we are spreading the wealth, so to speak. By not limiting “scientist” to the exclusive academic boy’s club, we recognize the real scientific work that women and minorities are doing outside the academy.

    I’m not sure I do think that, but neither am I sure I buy your argument here. People doing real scientific work outside the academy should be recognized as doing science; I am not convinced it helps anything to label them “scientists”.

    Note all my weasel-words though. I am largely thinking out loud here. The “gatekeeping” claim concerns me, as gatekeeping is one of the primary ways in which any unfair status quo is maintained (I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s in my own best interests, feminism and altruism and every other ism notwithstanding, to level the scientific and social playing fields). If changing the way I use the word “scientist” will help get people who are doing science outside the academy the respect they deserve, I’ll do it. I’m just not yet convinced that doing so doesn’t buy into the Cult of Science view that everyone should want to be a Scientistâ„¢, or that emphasizing Show Me The Data wouldn’t be a better method.

  5. #5 Lab Cat
    April 3, 2007

    My problem of limiting the usage of the word scientist and why I had to respond to Bill’s comment in Life as a Leak Part 2 was because it struck me as being cliquey. I’ve spent my life avoiding cliques and breaking up cliques because they are typically detrimental to any situation.

    I’m glad Bill responded to Ryan’s comment about grant funding bodies not being an old boys’ club. Ha Ha Ha! It is even more true in Britain as the country prides itself on old boy networking. Another reason I ran away to the US.

    There was a study of granting agents in Sweden. The only study that I know of on this, perhaps Zuska can correct me. It happened in the late 80s/ early 90s. I remember because my PhD advisor and I discussed it. Despite Sweden being one of the most liberal European countries, the study found that women, minorities and new researchers were always penalized. My advisor said that it was true in Britain (and HE was/is successful at getting funding) but he felt that there would never be a equivalent PUBLISHED study of British grant agencies.

  6. #6 Peggy
    April 3, 2007

    The study to which Lab Cat is referring is by Wenneras and Wold, published in Nature in May of 1997. A summary is available here: http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/1997/521/1.

  7. #7 Peggy
    April 3, 2007

    Sorry, the period at the end of the sentence got included in the above link so that it doesn’t work, but if you take off the final period, it will. The gist of the story is “Reviewers gave women consistently lower scores than men with an equivalent publication record, especially in the “competence” rating. In fact, according to the analysis, a woman needs three extra papers in a prestigious journal like Science or Nature to get the same ranking as a male researcher.”

  8. #8 leaking
    April 3, 2007

    Zuska,

    This might be hard to write about, but I would like to ask you a favor. I’m in the same boat now as you, maybe younger. I’ve ended up physically disabled enough that I can’t work the 60+ hours a week to be considered ‘serious’ and I decided it was better to be unemployed or differently employed rather than meet an early grave. I am in a transition period and although I never consumed my identity in being a scientist, I still feel lost and I don’t know what next. I especially don’t know what next from the point of view of science jobs that are workable part-time or virtually. Any insights would be a big help here. I would really appreciate it.

  9. #9 Bill
    April 3, 2007

    Leaking: if you write well and easily, there are a number of online editing services, such as Bioedit.com, which offer work as-it-comes and would suit someone who can sit at a computer for a few hours a day and needs to work part-time, online. I used to work for one; email me if you want more info.

  10. #10 leaking
    April 4, 2007

    Bill, thank you for your kind response. I used to do that stuff freelance before and I’ve been thinking about it, although I’m in a different field. I would very much like to do something more like science or research though longer-term and less something on the editing/admin/peripheral type of thing. Part time jobs in science don’t seem to exist… and there is also the uncertainty I’m having in general of not knowing if I’m ‘out’ permanently or not… which is a bitter pill after all this training.

  11. #11 Dr. Free-Ride
    April 5, 2007

    Pseudo-trackback!