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Scientists: Being and Becoming

On Being a Scientist coverIt is a commonplace that the physician’s role is a complicated one: applying inexact science to demanding patients, caring for people when they are at their most vulnerable while also worrying about reimbursement to sustain the effort, and balancing duties to patients and family.  But success in modern science also requires a remarkable set of skills. The scientist manages a sophisticated and highly capitalized lab, deals with personnel issues, teaches undergrads, graduate students and post docs, writes papers and grants, impresses funding sources, reviews manuscripts, edits journals, and engages in the inevitable academic politics. And that doesn’t even include the science itself, which just keeps getting more and more specialized.

In this environment the “socialization” of the scientist becomes ever more challenging and important. As the National Academies notes in the newly published third edition of its celebrated brief text, On Being A Scientist, society must trust in the competence and judgment of the scientist (and colleagues must trust each other), in order for the enterprise to flourish. As the philosopher of science Peter Caws has long observed, science generates fiduciary knowledge. Those of us not steeped in a field must have confidence in expertise.  Without professional ethics the house of science is a deck of cards.

The appearance of the third edition is timely for another reason. President Obama has made clear his refreshing view that good policy must be guided by the best possible evidence. The onus is now on the scientific community to rise to the challenge, now more than ever.

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