What Does This Generation Think it Means to be a “Scientist”?
Changing Definitions Could Entail a Changing Relationship Between Science and Society.
If there’s one thing you ought to be reading in relation to science this week, let me suggest it’s Bruce Alberts’ extremely important recent editorial in Science about the changing career trajectories of young researchers. Alberts, a Science Progress advisory board member, provides data to back up something that has struck me anecdotally on many visits to college campuses—namely, hordes of young scientists today don’t seem to want to follow in the footsteps of their professors. They’re blazing a different path. As Alberts writes:
Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)
A recent survey of more than 1000 of these young scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), reveals an unusually broad range of career aspirations. Less than half select becoming academic researchers like their mentors as their first choice. One senses that we are reaching a tipping point, where students who prefer to work in the world of public policy, government, precollege education, industry, or law will no longer be viewed as deserting science. Faculty and students can then begin to talk honestly about a whole range of respected, science-related career possibilities. This is crucial, because we must promote the movement of scientists into many occupations and environments if our end goal is to effectively apply science and its values to solving global problems. [Italics added]
This paragraph resonates for me in part because I collaborate with a young scientist who epitomizes the trend Alberts highlights—my co-blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum. She has two MS degrees, but decided to go work on Capitol Hill, in pop radio, and now in journalism and communication, rather than getting her Ph.D.
What’s refreshing about Alberts’ editorial is that, no academic traditionalist, he isn’t objecting to or lamenting this career diversification trend. Rather, he’s celebrating and encouraging it. He’s glad we have more scientists out there like Kirshenbaum—and why?
Because such forsaking of the traditional academic path has the potential to greatly increase the points of contact between science and the rest of our society, to break down walls between the mythic “ivory tower” and the no less mythic “main street.” Alberts even calls for scientific training to “provide our students with the additional skills they will need to be successful as they interface with other professions.” Hear hear!
In this sense, Alberts’ editorial links closely to another recent one in Science—this time by Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Research Center—arguing that we must train today’s young scientists to deal with the modern media and to excel in communication. There’s a central overlap here: Those young scientists who forsake the traditional academic career path are very likely to find themselves in fields where “soft skills” such as writing and communication will be valued at a premium.
I agree with Alberts that there appears to be a paradigm shift out there, a generational change in the science world. It’s not merely that science grad students and postdocs don’t want to grow up to become their professors or advisers; it’s also that in many cases, they simply can’t. The academic opportunities just aren’t there; there has been a marked constriction of opportunity in the ivory towers. Furthermore, many students don’t see a life of academic specialization as the best way to employ their scientific talents. They recognize that specialization’s disadvantages go hand in hand with its advantages. They want to do something more, to bring science to the rest of America.
And America needs them.
Now, the critical step will be to ensure that such students aren’t punished for their unorthodox choices, but rather, that such choices open up a whole new field of opportunity to them. I don’t think there’s much worry about not having enough bench scientists; as already noted, the competition for those academic jobs is intense and there are far more young scientists out there than positions. But let’s make sure that we are also creating opportunities for this new generation of scientific innovators that Alberts highlights—if we channel their impulses in the right direction, the dividends will be enormous, not just for science but for all of our society.
Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”
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