If not everyone can be a scientist, who gets to choose?

Aug 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

People, in PhD programs, in post-docs, leaving science, is an ongoing discussion, here and elsewhere. The causes of leaving engender passion and righteousness, and self-righteousness. There are manifestos, diatribes, and not some small amount of sadness.

Everybody agrees that there are probably not enough (meaning enough for everyone who might want one) jobs (meaning the preferred employment, in these discussions an academic professorship) and support (meaning an NIH R-level grant).

Part of the discussion I've come across is trying to separate out the legitimate selection mechanisms from the ones that are socially imposed. The latter are excoriated for not selecting "the best" of science. I think all right thinking people agree that the "this group is stupid and can't think" arguments are prejudices and entirely without merit. Beyond that, we enter the realm of more subtle concerns. Being subtle means only that the roots and branch implications are not immediately apparent, not that there is defensible value in those concerns. I find I quickly get confused when I read these things.

In other fields, that a sorting and selection process occurs is taken for granted. No one expects that every high school athlete will make it in the pros. Artists, visual, dramatic, performance, are all too aware of the difficulty and challenges of success, and often the mind-numbing finality of the "day job for just a while".

A small aside, but probably quite relevant in the long run: One of things that interests me is that in art, visual or performing art, some of those forces, the bad forces that keep people out, or try to keep people out, or even are just making it very difficult to succeed, are exactly those forces that shape the art and make it compelling, valuable, worthwhile, important. Stories told in a vernacular, stories told in the language of the oppressed, may not have been high literature once upon a time. But the power of those stories, told in those languages, move us, change us, make us more than we would have been. We come to recognize, society comes to recognize, art in a new form, art that grew out of efforts to keep the artist away from creating. We may argue today about this modality or that, but history shows us what we were foolish about 100 years ago. Stravinsky, Gauguin: does anyone doubt their art today?

In some ways, sport as an career choice is more clear: it is competition. Winners tend to be very obvious. Better is judged by winning. And that competition, the mental rigor of that competition is part, perhaps a very large part, of what drives individuals towards success. Art and science are, again, more subtle. If you lose a tennis match to Serena Williams, you know it. When does an artist decide that they cannot live on beans and rice and in an apartment with less desirable urban roommates, human, insect and rodent?

Is science different from art? In the discovered/undiscovered, there are some synapomorphies of human endeavor. But for every Stravinsky who endured and persisted, there was undoubtedly a woman of color, a person with disabilities, a working class individual who never got the opportunity to leave the factory in which they worked, whose music we will never know. There are people who did science against the odds, but also probably lots more who might have changed our lives, people who never had the right combination of resources and luck to be what they could.

So, what is our responsibility, aware that we are of their potential existence, to young people today who might be scientists (let alone artists)? We all decry those dystopian novels where there are tests and trials and some Greater Authority makes the decisions. But we are also not happy with a random river of time and chance throwing greatness up on the banks of society.

Had we but the resources, we would give every child the opportunity to explore and be educated and find what they can and will do. But large swathes of the world don't have enough food and health care, let alone basic education.  The anti-dystopian novel (think "The Giver") where the young rebel escapes the deterministic society and goes off to find what they are and Make A Difference is as unrealistic as the utopian visions. Aside from value as parable, these stories are disturbing. They are often framed as genius, of one sort or another, against the world. It’s often only the protagonist who escapes, and the Rosencrantz and Guildensterns of society, perhaps not genius, but perhaps creative, are left behind. What happens to them?

[Another aside, while there may truly be geniuses, and “top of the game” scientists, it is not a binary, bimodal distribution. It is not. There is not the .1% of incredible science, and the rest is trash, as has been asserted by many people. It is not normative and transformative science. The reality of scientific effort, product, output is far, far more subtle than that. Alas, another post].

If we all truly, really, deeply and meaningfully cared about that lost genius, let alone the good but not quite genius, we'd stop doing what we are, which likely has minimal impact on the lost children of human society. We would become activists and teachers and do something to effect change so that those children would have the chance to realize their potential.

Ah. But we have our rationalizations: I am better at doing my science than I am at organizing. I can do more good teaching here than I could in South America or Africa or rural anywhere without education for female children, non-binary children, children with handicaps and differently colored skin and eyes. If I make money, I can give it others, and that may do more good.

So we persist and do the small things that we can. Changing the world is hard. In my youth, I surely thought everyone who wanted it deserved a kindly mentor and a full stipend and a chance to be a scientist. I am unsure that that statement is false. I am also unsure that it is true. While many things have become clearer to me with age, this is not one of them. How do we choose who gets to be a scientist, an artist, even a doctor or lawyer or candlestick maker? Right now, the world is out there, and people, young people with dreams and wants, go at it, as best they can, with the tools they were given as children. The world while sometimes helpful and sometimes cruel, is largely indifferent to their efforts. Unlike sport, there is no ultimate World Series to determine who gets to be the best. There is no Final Four of college or grad school. We try, and the world throws its stochastic self at us in the form of mentors and opportunities and people we meet and talk with. So we teach them resilience and persistence and help in the ways we can.

9 responses so far

  • Microscientist says:

    You are very narrowly defining scientist as being and independent, academic PI. In this case your analogy works well with being an independent, gallery showing visual artist or a musician. But remember that in both science and the arts there are those affiliated careers often designated as "selling out".
    Barry Manilow started out writing jingles for commercials. John Williams will never be considered a "true artist" because he writes movie scores. This is in many ways the same as a scientist who sells out and goes to work for Pfizer or some other industrial application of science.
    I think we need to really push to include these more applied jobs under the "scientist" title, and give them the respect they deserve. Do you call the folks who work at the sewage treatment plant scientists? You should. And maybe we should find a way for these folks to dabble more in "pure science" if they so desire.
    Then more folks become more likely to know a scientist, and not be so intimidated by them and think of them only like the characters on the Big Bang.

    • potnia theron says:

      It was not meant to define scientist that way: there are many many other things that constitute being a professional scientist. The arguments to which I refer are usually about "staying in academics as a professor" and I was using "scientist" as a shorthand for that. Your correction/clarification on this point is well-taken.

      And, indeed, we see the academic job much as winning Wimbledon. We can respect other professional science jobs all we want, but that is seldom the first choice of the young people I have known who enter a phd program. And, it has not been the focus of the discussions to which I refer in the post.

      I am not denying that the issue you raise is a worthy point of discussion. It is. But it does not change the problem of deciding, and how it is decided, who gets to be a professor.

    • Julian Frost says:

      Barry Manilow started out writing jingles for commercials. John Williams will never be considered a "true artist" because he writes movie scores.

      Johan Sebastian Bach wrote an operetta about coffee, or if you prefer, a advertising jingle for coffee. Shakespeare wrote his plays to earn an income, and nobody doubts their greatness. Michelangelo took a commission from the church to paint the Sistine Chapel. The idea that art that is done for money is not art is a bad one, in my view.

  • As usual, a thoughtful post. I think one of the reasons these discussion get so heated is because to a much larger extent in other fields, WE are the ones making the selection. We are the peer reviewers who accept or reject manuscripts. We peer review and judge proposals. We serve on search committees, award panels, and journal editorial boards. This is this weird duality where we are at once the supplicants and the judges.

  • qaz says:

    Two comments.

    1. It really doesn't matter to the progress of humanity who gets to play sports. But science and art (*) matter. If we leave talent on the table in sports, it really doesn't matter to the length of humanity. (Who were the sports stars of ancient Greece? They totally had them. But we don't know their names.) On the other hand, if we leave talent on the table in science and art, then we lose something special. (We know many of the names of the great artists and scientists of ancient Greece. Aeschylus. Euripides. Hippocrates. Aristotle.) It really doesn't matter if there is a winner-take-all blood competition for sports. But having one for science and art is a loss for all of us.

    * Yes, art is critical to the progress of humanity. Anyone who doesn't believe that doesn't understand art or what it has done for humanity.

    2. The limits to science and art are effectively artificial. They are not caused by a fundamental process within science or art. In tennis, one player wins and the other loses. In the race to a spot in the gallery, the only limit is the number of paintings we're willing to put up there. The only limits are economic. It's that same line we always say about schools.... for the price of a couple of nuclear submarines (approx $2b) you could send every kid to college (cost is approx $1b/class/year). It is a statement about our priorities. We would rather limit the entry than give everyone who wants the opportunity.

    We are leaving talent on the table. In science and art, that is foolish.

    • potnia theron says:

      I'd never thought I'd even come close to defending sports. Professional sports. My oh my.

      But, if people choose the entertainment they want, then how is sports different from movies, or reading, or going to a museum?

      It may be for me, or you, but I have friends and family who would disagree.

      As for progress of humanity, art plays multiple roles in our individual lives and in our progress. I do not think it is a stretch to argue that sport is capable of playing those roles.

      And, as a small bonus (did I once blog on this... oh my mind it grows, well, something), a study about nepotism and meritocracy found that sports was the most fair, wrt merit, in its sorting and selection, of almost any undertaking, including politics (the worst), the arts and science. Maybe because merit is more clear cut.

  • JL says:

    qaz, I was initially shocked about your comment on submarines and sending kids to college. But I don't see how it can be true. $2billion for the sub. About 4 or 5 million kids enroll in college every year, let's say it's 4 million. That's $500 dollars per enrolled kid. My impression was that college costs $50k/year on average. That's two orders of magnitude off. I would still support sending 1% of the kids to college instead of buying a sub, but that's a very different deal. Am I missing something?

    Sorry to not contribute at all to the actual point of discussion. I do love this blog and I want to thank Potnia for her postings. Have been incredibly helpful.

    • potnia theron says:

      You are welcome.

      But, actually, lots of college doesn't cost $50k/yr. 2-year colleges (fastest growing sector) are a lot lot less (someone got numbers & stats?). So maybe 10 subs?

    • xykademiqz says:

      $50k/yr is far too much. That's almost the level of sticker price at Harvard and the like. At my large public R1 (state flagship) in-state tuition plus room and board is $25k/yr; in-state tuition alone is about $11k/yr.

      At a local community college, annual tuition for in-state residents is $3.8k/yr. So if you say $8k for 2 years at a community college, that's 250,000 people (a midsize city) with 2-year community college degrees for the price of one submarine. And I think the local CC is not the cheapest CC around.

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