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.
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.