Tents, Tribes and Lonely Islands: Who Gets to Be a Scientist?

A recent post by thoughtful, charismatic, and talented friend Scicurious on how the “system” of science training failed her, but should have failed her sooner has gotten me thinking a lot about my role in the science “system.” Sci’s argument is that she had many early dreams of becoming a professor and scientist, but ultimately came to the realization that she just wasn’t cut out to be a scientist:

I am not cut out to be a scientist. I’m cut out to be a lot of things. A teacher, a communicator, a writer. But a grant writing, publishing, committee serving scientist? I don’t think so.

Of course Sci has landed on her feet, and is well on her way to an illustrious career in science writing (a field which she had already accomplished a great deal as a graduate student and postdoc). I’m glad to read her acceptance at coming to the realization that she did not want to write grants for the rest of her life, and that the world of big wig R1 science was not a good match for her. But it is painful to read her lingering sense of failure

And yes, I feel like a failure sometimes. Seeing other people succeed in science where I did not. I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that “success” looked like a tenure track position. It doesn’t help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I’ve been told that it’s my fault that I didn’t stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my “former life”, I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

In closing, Sci wishes that the “system” of academic science recognized that she wasn’t cut out for academia earlier and kicked her out of the science tent so she could get on to her “outside of science” career. 

To me, this is just so so sad. Because ultimately, this feeling of failure is not just bad for Sci, but it is bad for science. The more exclusive we make the tent of “Real Scientists,” the more we shrink the respect that the public has for science in general. As Janet Stemwedel aptly points out

But if the question is who counts as a member of the tribe of science, some of these factors render invisible lots of people whose knowledge, work, and interests look pretty darned scientific.

Does it cost the scientists at the top of the food chain anything to have a somewhat more inclusive view of who’s a scientist (or contributes to the well being of the scientific enterprise)? What does it cost them to keep discounting the scientists who don’t fit the narrow approved mold?

Science needs more people like Sci. Full stop. But it needs people like Sci to do the things she is great at, writing, communicating, mentoring, inspiring. The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Stay and grow the island, don’t wish you had gotten kicked off earlier. 


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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11 Responses to Tents, Tribes and Lonely Islands: Who Gets to Be a Scientist?

  1. scicurious says:

    *Roars vigorously*

    Lovely response Cedar, thank you!

  2. Laura (@MicroWavesSci) says:

    OK, I’m generally with you and docfreeride on this, because I agree there is unwarranted snobbery in the hierarchies of the science world. But I wonder if some of the exclusivity behind applying the term “scientist” comes from how we in society equate “scientist” with “expert”. People try to claim the label of “scientist” on shaky qualifications in order to give legitimacy to ludicrous positions. A great example is Paul Broun, the House representative from my district in Georgia (sorry about that. I didn’t vote for him). He has a medical degree and serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He also told an audience that evolution, embryology and the big bang theory are all “lies straight from the pit of hell”. A direct quote from that appearance: “there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth.”

    Paul Broun is not a scientist. To exclude him (rightly) from using the label “scientist”, we have to put some criteria on it. He probably studied science to earn his medical degree, but he didn’t train in science. He works in science as a subcommittee chairman and member of the House Science Committee, but he doesn’t produce the knowledge that he (hopefully) reads and considers when making decisions. I think these are important distinctions.

    I don’t like the snobbery that is sometimes shown to people pursuing non-research careers in science, such as teachers, writers, policy experts. I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by dividing into “serious” versus “sort of” scientists (I was surprised how little alarm was raised in the laboratory sciences when the NSF poli sci debacle went down). But I think there are good reasons to put some qualifications on who is called a scientist. I don’t think public trust in science is improved by letting Paul Broun call himself a scientist.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Great point, Laura. I agree that there are certainly reasons to draw the line somewhere so that celebrity “doctors” aren’t able to claim an undeserved mantle of expertise. But as far as demarcating what careers count as science (and even what aspects of science jobs count as real science) I am in favor of a broader definition and a bigger tent. I accept that they are related, so I’ll even go so far as this: it is better to have a few people claim to be scientists who I feel aren’t “real” scientists than to keep turning away people for not being cut out for “real” science careers.

  3. Nicely done. Years ago I learned science as “a way of knowing” and not just the product–knowledge–if its wide ranging pursuits. Those who insist on a narrower view do us all a disservice.

  4. Pingback: How we construct ‘failure’ and professional communities. | Adventures in Ethics and Science

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  7. I loved this too. Thanks. Just as communicators like Bethany are scientists, so are secondary science teachers. They do science! They are part of our community! They belong in this tribe.

  8. Jim Thomerson says:

    Years ago a very capable, straight A, student of mine went into a PhD program. At one of the meetings with his committee, he told them he wanted to teach. They got all over him to the extent that he quit the PhD program and got an MS in Junior College Administration. Then he got a position with a state conservation department, and spent many years running a research program. He advanced as far as possible there. He then became a professor at a small Christian college and lived happily ever after. All sort of ironic, and illustrating some of the viewpoints that have been present in PhD programs for a long time.

  9. EB says:

    I interpreted what Scicurious said a little differently. She said she wished that “science” had kicked her out sooner. On that score, you could take her to mean that she wished “academic” science had not taken up years of her life, training her in a narrow track to become a tenured professor driven by the need to get grants and produce grad students who then went on to tenure track jobs of their own. She felt that this track was wrong for her from the start, and that while she loved and was good at science in the larger sense, this constricted career path could have been traded in for her ultimate path, earler on, if her academic advisers had leveled with her as to what they would demand of her along the way.

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