Not all science professors or PhDs are professional scientists. Discuss.

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.

Comment by Psi Wavefunction

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.

COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED ON THIS POST. Any further discussion will be continued here.


9 comments to Not all science professors or PhDs are professional scientists. Discuss.

  • Oh dear, I guess I’m not a professional scientist in your books. I teach science courses in university, I write about science on my blog, I’m an editor of a journal on science education, I’m a professor in a science department at a university, and I’m the author of a scientific textbook.
     
    But I haven’t published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal for many years and I don’t have a research grant.
     
    What should I call myself?
     
    Some of my colleagues are losing their grants. When do they stop calling themselves professional scientists? Is it the day the money runs out or is there a three month period of grace?
     
    Ryan, your definition is not only silly, it’s also very insulting.
     
     

    • Fair enough — what’s your definition of a professional scientist? (Or practicing scientist, or whatever the term you prefer is; or, equally possible, there is no such category requiring a term?).

    • No grace period needed because that wasn’t the only criterion, and one should obviously take this to mean actively engaged in funded research and/or in writing grants.  If you’re not even trying to get funding, and not supervising students, and not doing new research, and not publishing in peer-reviewed journals, then it’s quite different from just losing a prior grant then seeking alternatives.

  • Yes. Many science professors are no longer scientists. Part of the problem is the tenure system. Yes, I understand the supposed rationale for tenure; professors who have established themselves in their early work can more readily conduct less guaranteed, but potentially more significant research if they know they won’t get fired if they fail. But too many tenured faculty take the security of tenure to do little or no additional research.

  • What should I call myself?
    An educator, author, and editor, but not a scientist.
    Some of my colleagues are losing their grants. When do they stop calling themselves professional scientists? Is it the day the money runs out or is there a three month period of grace?
    When they stop actually doing research. You don’t have to have a grant yourself to do grant funded research. For example, although I’d like to be 100% sufficient as a PI, more than half of my time is covered by doing analysis of other people’s data and charging time to their grants.
     

  • In yor previous post, you state
    “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.
    I notice that throughout this whole conversation, you have focused on grant-funded research. I’d like to remind you that there are a great number of scientists working in industry who absolutely do not go through the same process of writing up grants or getting funding. I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they’re not worthy of the title “scientist”. 

    Of course, this leads to other problems with your definition, because these PhDs employed in industry may not be able to set their own research direction, don’t procure their own funding, but I think it’s pretty insulting to say that they don’t do science every day.  

    Then you find yourself in a bind, because what they do sounds a lot like a graduate student or postdoc position . . . hrmmm.

    • Right, and what I said was “For the purposes of this post…” before giving the definition. That post was about an article in the NYT about science bloggers and the quickly-delete Pepsi blog that would have been authored in part by industry scientists. So, within the context of what I was discussing, it’s not really any mystery why I focused on academic scientists.

      I suspect that my colleagues working in industry would prefer not to be considered minimally different from graduate students, by the way.

  • Let me add to the above that industry scientists do often publish in journals.  It’s the “funded by a granting agency” that I have a problem with.

  • Hi, I have followed this discussion with interest.  I now work with PIs in Cambridge University in the area of their continued professional development.  Previously though, I have a life time of research experience on fixed term contracts in the UK and have worked in a variety of establishments in both academia, industry and government-funded institutes.   I think the concept of the professional scientist has become very clouded by the different arenas within which research is performed.  From my observations in the UK, professional scientists ( as you define them) are definitely mainly to be found in government-funded institutes such as the MRC or BBSRC research institutes within University settings.  Most University departments are teaching and admin dominated and research is carried out in the main by PhD students. The difference in professionlism toward research in the different arenas is quite marked.