Scientist: Task or Profession?

Right now there is more than usual interest in “science.” There is talk that all of science is refocused on COVID-19. Which is of course insane: neither geophysicists nor particle physicists nor most other people who you might call a scientist can actively assist in research related to COVID-19. But anyways, it does bring out this question of, what really is a scientist?

The classic 1950s version is the white-coated balding white dude wandering through a lab full of bubbling beakers or big banks of dials and switches. What are they doing? Well, science. Of course.

Here’s the thing: most of the people you might think are scientists are spending a hell of a lot of time doing other stuff. To the degree now that most practitioners of science are primarily doing other stuff.

The latest imposition on those scientists who deign to seek money from the federal government is a fine example of IT run wild, the SciENcv system. Because, apparently, the curricula vitae and lists of current and pending support were apparently too easy to create, the government has now demanded that these rather simple documents be created by a Frankenstein’s monster of interacting websites and databases. GG has counted four databases clamoring for attention to this point, and he has yet to get to the other side. Why? Because so many of these “helpful” databases are populated by errors (a book is listed as a journal article with only a title; middle initials are lost–a concern for some of us–etc.), and more errors exist as one database is subtilely misread by another (one, for instance, cannot sort by date properly despite the dates being quite obvious and the source database having no trouble whatsoever). And the coup de grâce is that a whole bunch of stuff for a cv has to be typed in to a bunch of individual edit fields in a bunch of dialog boxes on a bunch of different webpages. So changes to a Word file that typically took a few minutes for each new proposal has now become a multi hour trek through the wilderness of unnecessary IT. (The irony is that there is a very annoying thing that we still have to fill out by hand, a list of all our collaborators, which is something that arguably could have been eased by a decent IT effort).


Apparently this is to save somebody looking at a cv and saying “you know, this breaks the rules by having listed publications after synergistic activities” or, heaven forbid, using a non-standard font.

If this was just a once-in-a-career thing, OK, we all suffer silly stuff like this. But it isn’t. “Scientists” have to manage budgets, oversee staff, procure equipment, troubleshoot IT issues, create project goals, write up project reports, write up annual reports, approve purchases, write papers, illustrate papers, install software, update software, etc. etc. Some “scientists” also have to keep track of billable hours, prepare technical reports, attend staff meetings, make press releases, do public interviews, do book tours, fill out travel reports, arrange international visas, find housing for visiting scientists, etc.

Now there are three main groups of professional scientists: industry, academic, and government. GG is an academic, which means being a scientist is at most a part-time job. A lot of the time is being an educator, and a not insignificant amount of time is spent doing “service” work, which ranges from the drudgery of keeping a university going (faculty meetings, ExComm meetings, committee meetings…you get the idea) to the excitement of helping professional societies (meetings to organize meetings, for instance, and no, this is a big deal). Is it fair to call a soul doing this a scientist? Or is it more appropriate to say some academics moonlight doing some science?

Long ago, industry scientists at places like Bell Labs were freed to a greater degree from this style of drudgery, as were many scientists within the federal government. In the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of geoscience research came from the U.S. Geological Survey and from R&D groups in petroleum and mining companies. While these organization were looking for work that would ultimately advance their goals, they often gave a surprising amount of freedom to those who had a record of success. Today? A lot of industry has outsourced any R&D to academic groups or consultants, who must then spend considerable time assembling funding groups and determining what deliverables will gain support. Government has also increasingly demanded “deliverables”, dictating more and more closely what government scientists are allowed to study.

The kind of pure science envisioned in those old white-lab-coated days is long gone; the seeming purity of knowledge for its own sake is fading out. Hubbert long ago decried the notion of science as a career, feeling that a focus on protecting and advancing careers would reward mediocrity. However the gentleman scientist from days of yore, working in his workshop in his ample spare time, is hardly a likely future for science that has come to rely on multimillion dollar pieces of equipment or the efforts of hundreds of individuals.

So are there really any scientists the way the movies depict them? Arguably the distinction between scientist and non-scientist is more in worldview than job description: data can convince a scientist of something she didn’t think was true. An ability that seems to rapidly be fading away these days…

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