What Makes a Scientist?
I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday about “what makes a scientist”. Now, I’ve written here that I’m not really a scientist, and that’s true. I’m an engineer. While I use scientific principles to test hypotheses, my real job is about designing and building computer simulations and using them to make predictions. The scientific process gets entangled there, but I don’t generally, really have to apply academic rigor and scientific reductionism to the work that I do. I’m a holistic engineer, as it were. I look at broad systems through a coarse lens.
However, from the perspective of using repeatable methods to observe, study, and understand the world, and then encapsulating that understanding to be disseminated to others, of course I’m a scientist. I am generating knowledge about human-interactive hybrid dynamic systems and how they behave, how we study them, and how we can intervene in them to make them behave in more useful ways. That’s science.
My friend and I were talking about grants and papers, and my friend asserted that no one who is awful at writing grants and papers can be a “fine scientist”, essentially by definition. At least, not in the modern world’s structure for producing science. Such a person cannot be an effective independent investigator. If you can’t write grants, and you can’t get papers out, then you might be great at designing experiments, taking and interpreting data, and testing hypotheses, but you won’t be able to do much science because you won’t have resources. Without grants you can’t do experiments, without experiments you can’t write papers, without papers, you can’t get grants.
So the ancillary aspects of “science”, the administrative business of lab budgeting and grantsmanship and paper writing are parceled with being a good scientist, de facto even if not philosophically. Some people will lament this, I suppose. But in the system we’ve built, I think it’s true. In order to be a decent scientist, for the most part, you need to be a decent writer of grants and papers. Mostly.
So, what makes a scientist? What’s the definition you use?
*UPDATE: This is focused on “being a PI”. Grad students, postdocs, technicians, etc., are all obviously scientists.