Part two of the discussion that started about graduate students is about people who have PhDs in a scientific discipline and may even have faculty positions in a science department. Does having such a position automatically make someone a “professional scientist”? To kick things off, I will quote from one post cited in the comment thread of the last discussion, and one new comment from the thread. It so happens that one is from an Associate Professor, the other from a student.
Is Richard Dawkins a scientist? “How can you ask that? He’s probably only one of the most famous scientists in the world!” I don’t advertise myself as an actor, even though I was an extra once. Or as an artist, even though I did some cartooning some time ago. And I even got paid for it. Dawkins has a doctorate in science, is a great synthesizer of other people’s science, one of the greatest advocates for science around, but when was the last time he did any original science? When did he last analyze any data?
The “general public” is famously unable to name a single living scientist. That they cannot may be due in part to a lot of people being described as scientists when they are not actively involved in science. Professional scientists have clear marching orders: Test hypotheses by generating data, and publish the results. (Yes, I know theoreticians don’t necessarily generate their own data, so don’t come bugging me.) Should scientists, as a profession, be a little more assertive about who gets to use that professional label?
Zen Faulkes, Who Gets to be a Scientist? at NeuroDojo
The problem I find with your definition of scientist being a PI is that it links the term ‘scientist’ (which the public perceives as “people who actually do science”) to academic titles, which are not necessarily indicative of quality or intelligence. I’ve read papers by established PIs that would make an undergrad blush. I think what matters more than title is how close the author is to the bench, figuratively speaking. People like Dawkins, despite him having been a ‘proper’ PI in the past, do not make the cut for being ‘practicing scientists’, in my view (in agreement with Zen Faulkes’ post), as they have been removed from the bench (or field) for decades. In this view, Dawkins is no more deserving of the ‘practicing scientist’ title than Random Blogging Grad Student. He’s a practicing science WRITER, as you would probably argue. I’ve definitely felt more like a scientist when running experiments, etc, than I do now in my writing job, even though my current job is a bit more intellectually demanding and requires lots of reading and thinking about scientific literature.
I’ll leave the discussion open as to whether others should/shouldn’t be excluded from the category of “professional scientist” as we have been defining it. I will note, though, that my original post said the following:
For the purpose of this post, “professional scientist” is defined as someone who does scientific research for a living, publishes research in peer-reviewed journals, and is funded by granting agencies to do it. Not just writes about it, or is studying it, or doing some of it as a grad student, or only teaches it. Science bloggers — people who have blogs partly or mostly about science — are not necessarily, or even usually, professional scientists.
This was never meant to be just about graduate students, but I wanted that discussion to play out first. Now let’s talk about profs.
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