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One of the blog posts that caught my eye after I got back from Tristan was this entry by The EEB & Flow, wherein they take (much deserved) shots at “creation scientists”, in particular their attempt to define a scientist in a way that excluded people pushing a pro-creationism agenda under the guise of science.  In their table entitled “How to know if you are doing science”, they list four criteria by which scientists should be defined:

  1. Publishing peer-reviewed papers
  2. Being asked to review papers
  3. Securing research funding
  4. Training students

It is with this list that I take umbrage, and with which I disagree.  This is not “how to know if you are doing science”, but “how to know if you are an academic scientist” which, let’s be honest, is only a subsection of scientific endeavour, and a relatively recent one at that.  It’s also one to which an increasing number of researchers don’t aspire.

 

The terms “academic”, “scientist”, and “researcher” are often thrown about as though they are equivalent, when in fact they are like матрёшка, the nesting Russian dolls. Pardon my pedantry, but I think it’s important to know that these differ, and how.

Most broadly, a researcher is engaged in a line of inquiry. This includes biographers, art historians, sociologists, linguists, economists, and many, many more.  A subset within this group are the academics, which are researchers employed by the academy (usually a university, college, or other school).  Scientists are those,  within and outside the academy, who are researchers in a scientific field (however one chooses to define the scope of those fields; a post for another day).  Though the differences may appear subtle, I assure you they are not without meaning or importance. To suggest otherwise demeans all of us engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

I work for an environmental NGO. I am a researcher. I am a scientist. I am not an academic.

Taking the list of four supposed requirements to be graced with the moniker of “scientist”, I find fault with each of them.  First, that a scientist must publish, and be asked to review peer-reviewed papers.  For better or worse, this is the mechanism by which we, as a scientific community, have largely chosen to assess merit and progress.  Again, whether this broken system is the best/most appropriate/only way to do so is a topic for another day.  But it excludes the foot-soldiers on the ground doing a lot of the actual work – technicians and research assistants.  “But!” I hear some cry, “They are simply following the instructions of a scientist!” Well done on demoting these people to the role of mindless automatons. Suggesting that they have no independent thought, no ability to find solutions to problems, or to pose unique and important questions is disingenuous, and placing them in a supposedly lower class of “technician” or “field assistant” absent of the word scientist reinforces the strongly hierarchical norms of our profession.  These people are scientists.

We now come to research funding, that fabled mystical land. As above, technicians and field assistants (who, you’ll recall, are also scientists) aren’t expected to secure research funding.  Similarly, some scientists in “industry” (oh, what a wonderfully nebulous term!), in government, and at NGOs are expected to deliver the organization’s scientific program using internal funding.  This is not to say that scientists in these organizations do not, cannot, and should not pursue external funding, but that it’s not necessarily a requirement of their jobs.  But “securing research funding” is sufficiently vague and broad to include meeting with one’s boss to pitch a project, and having it approved, though the typical expectation is that “secure research funding” means a competitive, often external, process.

Lastly, we come to the supposed criterion with which I disagree the most – scientists must train students. Hello there, small-world view! Training students is not a part of my job (though it’s not prohibited, either). The same can be said of scientists in industry and in government. The question of whether there are “too many” PhDs (or other graduate students) has been asked frequently (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are just a few examples), and there are no signs that it will slow down.  Even though we, as a community, have been shouting from the rooftops that the days of PhD to postdoc to tenure-track position are largely over, that progression is still the dominant narrative to which graduate students subscribe.  “But!”, some cry, “The universities need to provide/are providing them with the skills necessary to succeed outside academia!”.  When immersed in a research lab “doing academia” for 4+ years, a few hour-long workshops to present alternative careers isn’t going to make a difference. Now, I know that some PIs work at the interface between academia and government/industry/NGOs, and that their students might have a slightly different experience, but they are probably in the minority.  Because “number of students/graduated students” is another criterion against which “success” is measured, they are continually recruited, emerge in their late 20s or early 30s with burdensome debt, having worked for poor salaries (and living with the consequences thereof), and face an abysmal job market. The point of this digression is that recruiting and supervising students isn’t required of, or necessarily good for, science.

 

Taken together, these four points, while perhaps important for academics are not necessarily the same for scientists, or indeed researchers.  The conflation of these three labels is found frequently in media stories, blog posts, and other discussions, particularly those directed at academics. So please remember that I am a scientist, there are other scientists outside the ivory tower, and we’re not necessarily the same.

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