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What Makes a Scientist?

17 September 2014

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 September 2014 08:44

    You should see Ben Lillie’s list of a partial list of thigns scientists are expected to be great at that are also full time jobs (writing is one of them).

    It’s the ‘if a tree falls in the woods’ idea…if no one’s around to know you did science, then have you scienced? Probably not. So yes, the publication and getting grants is a key part of the process; we wouldn’t know about Isaac Newton if he hadn’t written his book.

    The thing is, I would say that being good at writing is necessary, but far from sufficient; we’re in a system now where you can do everything right and still not achieve funding/sustainable career in science. It’s content creation. do you create good content?

    Now, it’s hard to hold onto the idea too tightly (is a kid that applies the scientific method a scientist? even if it’s just learning how rocks fall when you throw them?); look, I almost got to the point of taking my own life because I wasn’t being an effective scientist and largely blamed myself for it because I’m terrible. I’m doing better now, and am trying my best, but I no longer want to make my life as an active bench scientist. The broader category we all fit into is knowledge worker; that covers STEM, art, entertainment, etc. If you’re doing that using the critical skills of science, then at some level, you’re a scientist.

  2. Syd permalink
    22 September 2014 11:43

    I found this intriguing–
    E.O. Wilson was one of my scientific idols. Times have changed. Now it may be more about what prestigious school or professional affiliation you have, your personal appearance, poise, and behavior. And sadly, how well, you can speak and BS. What I like to think is that a good scientist isn’t afraid to explore new ideas, tinker with things, be able to have a broad vision but be detailed in design, think out side the paradigm, take risks with new procedures, relate work to the real world, be able to write clearly and present your work in a way that is interesting and understood, be passionate about what you do, learn how to collaborate, and be a visionary about the big picture and where your work has a niche.

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