Thursday, 15 January 2015

The internet is furious with Science

I recently read this article summing up the relative financial cost to US science graduates and PhDs of staying in science. This article of course raises some pertinent issues around a US science system that seems, to my delicate sensibilities, a bit cut-throat, not to mention keeping people in ‘grad school’ into their 30’s even without any gap years. There are many valid points in this article. I also would not like to try and make ends meet in New York City or London as a scientist, and fair play to you if you are.

It pains me though to think in terms of the cost of science, and I can’t help noticing a lot of articles on the web bemoaning the general lot in life of scientists. A lot of them are the comic strips and memes (bleugh) I see shared a lot on social media that I think romanticize a sense of martyrdom among scientists and a general feeling that we are all hard done by, unique little snowflakes having to put up with terrible, overbearing supervisors, awful dungeon-like laboratories and the career prospects of an ice-road trucker in the era of some advanced runaway greenhouse effect. There just isn’t enough out there to balance it out (it probably makes sense… “Scientist happy in job” is about on an interest level with “cat gets stuck up a tree” I guess).

The internet is furious with Science.
I just can’t get on board with this notion that science is some savage taskmaster that chews up and spits out early career researchers (making the internet furious in the process, by the way). Yep, it’s hard. It’s meant to be. I’m going to tell you what I think is the benefit of being in science. It’s our job to find out interesting and cool things about the way the world works. We are allowed to think long and deeply about why and how the particular part of the universe we study works. We get paid (even some Ph.D. students do too) to explore and think and play around with stuff. On the other side, we are of course expected to produce data, interpretations, theories, inventions, results etc. that benefit the scientific community and the general public, sometimes in immediate and tangible ways, and sometimes in ways that will filter down in time. Some of what we do will benefit nobody at all, ever, but that is the nature of life and a risk we can never avoid.

I think a lot of the stuff I see on the web is trying to be positive, really. It serves to unite people around their experiences. It’s only human to like having a common cause (or enemy). By making our occasionally rankling feelings known we are acknowledging the difficulties of scientific life, which are there for all to see; we are saying that this is a hard life but a good life and we moan about it because we really want to succeed. It means a great deal to us. We see the value and therefore we feel the frustrations all the more acutely. I would also venture that British scientists need to take what’s written (or drawn) as a result of the US science system with a very critical eye; I don’t think we are necessarily always talking about the same things.

Being able to do science is a great gift. In the words of this blog and previous sage scientists who have gone before me, you must go in to science with your eyes open. The privilege to work on these problems is one to be treasured. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be competitive, but if you ever feel like science has cost you something then you’ve lost me. 

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