Saturday, October 19, 2013

Toward a more expansive view of being a scientist

So, I tried to write an editorial for a science journal this summer, and a few things about the experience were very interesting. First and foremost was the back and forth with the editor about whether or not what I had written about was actually "science". For me, this gets to the heart of the matter what it means to be a scientist and what is considered science (not to mention how hard it is to publish as a practitioner). I deeply believe that we need be more expansive in how we think about both.

My editorial was focused on the idea that scientists in my community (ecology and the environmental sciences) have a real invitation right now to better integrate relationships between people into how we think about our work. In my view, to the extent that we do that now, it's in a pretty implicit and/or often mechanistic way. I plan to expand further on this topic directly in further posts - including by posting some version of the editorial that I wrote. For now, I simply mention it to say that within a narrow or more traditional view of how "science" is defined, one could conclude that my editorial was not science. But, if science also encompasses the people that practice it (not to mention the people it impacts) and how they practice it, my topic was actually quite relevant.

These kinds of experiences -- plus much of the research that I am doing and interactions I have with legal and medical field colleagues as a result -- have led me to be even more curious about the fact that many of us trained as scientists now practice outside the context in which we trained (i.e., the university), and to wonder what the implications are for both training and practice. One immediate implication is that once we are no longer researching in a "traditional" way, we are often not seen as scientists. And, in fact, many people no longer consider *themselves* scientists - I have had more friends and colleagues tell me that they are "not scientists" anymore than I can count. To which I mostly say: don't be silly.**

Another implication is that students get a skewed perspective of what it means to be a scientist. And yet another is that most graduate training is not reflective of the jobs that many students will go on to do. I also think it fundamentally weakens the science that gets done, the questions that get asked, and the relevance of the entire endeavor.

The implications are indeed many, stretching into issues of diversity in its many forms. One real harm is simply that it disconnects us. In my ideal world, we'd expand our ideas of science and scientists to be more inclusive - on many levels.

**As an aside: I am not being dismissive - it's a real concern. For example, one of our graduate school professors told a seminar of hopeful young researchers that anything less than a PhD made you a technician, not a scientist. These and other views can be pervasive, so our sense of no longer "fitting" is not completely in our imaginations.

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