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Science is a Hideous Bitch Goddess.

23 January 2013

With all due respect to Tennessee Williams, Or William James, or George Burns, or whoever actually said that first about show business (Bart Simpson?), I think the sentiment applies quite well to pursuing the scientific arts. I am, of course, not in the strict realm of academic science. Some will tell you I have no claim to the mantle of “scientist”. My degree is in engineering. I work for a hospital, not a university. My academic appointment is a courtesy, and only adjunct. I’m not a real scientist like those real scientists who teach and have fancy labs (I have a lab, but boy is it ever not fancy… or even all located in one place, or used to anything like its capacity.).

And I myself often don’t really claim the title. As an engineer, I prefer to do work that is designed to be applied to and improve real world health care delivery systems, not test hypotheses and incrementally advance generalizable knowledge. However, I then like to try to publish these ideas so that other clinics, other hospitals, can adopt the solutions we come up with in ours. Because many, many clinical systems in diverse environments face the same struggles. Each is idiosyncratic, but each bears many basic similarities to others as well. And the process of developing ideas, testing them in a pilot clinic (experiment) and then distributing them in the literature (dissemination), is a scientific process.

What I like about engineering – direct, applied engineering – is that I get to engage with and improve my local environment. As such, success or failure is generally on the basis of my own merits, and those of the people I work directly with. This stands in basic opposition to most university based scientific pursuits, where success vs. failure is often, in the first place, predicated upon the successful writing and funding of a grant by an outside agency, which is a prospect that is these days as likely to hinge on luck as talent. Everyone applying for grants is absurdly talented. And there’s not enough money to go around. Reviewers far away with limited time and energy will decide your fate.

Success in engineering is also measured by simple metrics. Does my clinic perform better after my intervention than it did before? According to basic metrics that have been laid out ahead of time. Scientific success is also measured along these lines (Did the experiment produce the results the hypothesis predicted?), but it is also measured by the quality of the journal you publish in, the number of papers you produce annually, etc.. These things are also based somewhat on luck. You might have a brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed experiment. Editors far away will decide your fate.

In science, there’s a lot of rejection. Papers, grants, applications for incredibly rare faculty positions. Even excellent, brilliant work will get rejected a lot. In the case of grants, the NIH and NSF and VAORD are rejecting hundreds of grants a year, probably thousands, that would produce fine results if funded. I’m not going to get in to my opinions on the state of federal funding right here. I’m just noting that a lot of good, hard work goes unrewarded when you’re in science. In the case of papers, if your topic isn’t what some associate editor thinks is most relevant for the journal right now, unless you’ve decided to submit to PLOSone, your excellent work won’t be published.

Science has many incredible intermittent rewards. Yesterday a paper of mine that had been languishing un-cited in a minor journal got its first citation! I was thrilled! Someone read my work! Sure, the citation was essentially just to note: “Humans have done work in this area.” But still. Someone at least read the abstract! Now that it’s been cited once, it’s much more likely to be cited again. Maybe someone will actually pay attention to my result. Maybe I’ll have made an impact somewhere, a little bit.

I have a couple of papers that have been rejected several times each out there right now. I’m trying like hell to get them published. One, the one I’m most eager to see in print, somewhere, somehow, passed its first hurdle. It was sent out for review by the journal I submitted it to. No desk reject! That’s exciting! At a pretty good journal!

When a paper is accepted, or a grant is funded, or a student is accepted into medical school or graduate school, the rewards of science are blisteringly hot and glorious-resplendant. Even when things are not going superbly, being a scientist and a researcher carries prestige. People are impressed. Even my own essentially meaningless title of “adjunct assistant professor” sounds really good when it falls off of my tongue. Even though I realize that I don’t think I would want to be a full-time, tenure-track professor, I’m envious of people with that title. It’s a prestigious title.

Science is a grueling profession. Dizzying rewards. Catastrophic rejections. Good people, fine scientists, routinely leave the field for no reason other than bad luck and a bad system. Over the avarice of administrators, the poverty of funding agencies, and the short-sightedness of editors. I’m glad to have carved myself a niche in the scientific world, the engineering world, where, while I may not wear the cloak and scepter they give to tenured professors, I can be happy, productive, useful.

Because I think we shouldn’t forget the purpose of science. While frantic scientists scramble to maintain their livelihoods in an era of vanishing support and upheaval in the publishing industry, I hope we don’t lose sight of the ideal of science. The search for new knowledge. The unbroken chain of innovation that recedes to antiquitous revelations of spark and blade; that stretches in front of us to the clockwork of the mind, to the riverbeds of Mars, to the preservation of this teeming, mad, unutterably beautiful world.

This is the seduction of science. It is worth all the pain we suffer for it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 January 2013 10:19

    I realized the other day that my basic desire to work in science is based on the opportunity for mastery: I think of things in terms of mastering them. The scientific community tends to measure things on the very superficial criteria that you mention, however, so I’m feeling rather alienated.

  2. Syd permalink
    23 January 2013 19:46

    Back in the day, science was really not so difficult a profession as it is now. Or perhaps, I should say as complicated. Now, it is necessary in my field to do multidisciplinary projects, with teams of scientists and multiple institutions too. Networking is necessary for funding. I think that it is a good thing because it helps to explain aspects of the marine system that no one person can accomplish. But it definitely makes things a bit more complicated on proposals. I am hoping that all will go well with your career. You are really working at it and have the interest.

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