Tents, Tribes and Lonely Islands: Who Gets to Be a Scientist?

A recent post by thoughtful, charismatic, and talented friend Scicurious on how the “system” of science training failed her, but should have failed her sooner has gotten me thinking a lot about my role in the science “system.” Sci’s argument is that she had many early dreams of becoming a professor and scientist, but ultimately came to the realization that she just wasn’t cut out to be a scientist:

I am not cut out to be a scientist. I’m cut out to be a lot of things. A teacher, a communicator, a writer. But a grant writing, publishing, committee serving scientist? I don’t think so.

Of course Sci has landed on her feet, and is well on her way to an illustrious career in science writing (a field which she had already accomplished a great deal as a graduate student and postdoc). I’m glad to read her acceptance at coming to the realization that she did not want to write grants for the rest of her life, and that the world of big wig R1 science was not a good match for her. But it is painful to read her lingering sense of failure

And yes, I feel like a failure sometimes. Seeing other people succeed in science where I did not. I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that “success” looked like a tenure track position. It doesn’t help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I’ve been told that it’s my fault that I didn’t stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my “former life”, I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

In closing, Sci wishes that the “system” of academic science recognized that she wasn’t cut out for academia earlier and kicked her out of the science tent so she could get on to her “outside of science” career. 

To me, this is just so so sad. Because ultimately, this feeling of failure is not just bad for Sci, but it is bad for science. The more exclusive we make the tent of “Real Scientists,” the more we shrink the respect that the public has for science in general. As Janet Stemwedel aptly points out

But if the question is who counts as a member of the tribe of science, some of these factors render invisible lots of people whose knowledge, work, and interests look pretty darned scientific.

Does it cost the scientists at the top of the food chain anything to have a somewhat more inclusive view of who’s a scientist (or contributes to the well being of the scientific enterprise)? What does it cost them to keep discounting the scientists who don’t fit the narrow approved mold?

Science needs more people like Sci. Full stop. But it needs people like Sci to do the things she is great at, writing, communicating, mentoring, inspiring. The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Stay and grow the island, don’t wish you had gotten kicked off earlier.