Who is a scientist?

The discussion about the definition of “professional scientist” has been interesting, with a range of opinions shown. But this raises the question — what criteria make someone a “scientist”, or even a “professional scientist” if such a distinction is necessary?

Here are the criteria I threw out off-handedly for the purpose of discussing the NYT story about science blogs:

- Does scientific research for a living,
- Publishes research in peer-reviewed journals,
- Is funded by granting agencies to do it,
- Does not just write about it, or study it, or do some of it as a grad student, or only teach it.

This wasn’t an official or proposed definition, as indicated by the qualifier “For the purpose of this post”. Others have raised objections to one or more of these. I don’t think they are all necessary and certainly none is sufficient. So, let’s go through the exercise and think of some criteria that would distinguish a “professional scientist”. Nowhere in here is there an implication that graduate students, industry scientists, government scientists, postdocs, or anyone else doesn’t “do science” when they are engaged in research, so let’s get beyond that straw man if we can.

As I noted in the last post, lots of people want to be called “scientist”, presumably because it carries some prestige. But if anyone who does an experiment is a “scientist”, then the term isn’t meaningful at all.

So, assuming that we want the term to mean something, what makes someone a scientist?

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5 comments to Who is a scientist?

  • How about just the first part about doing research for a living? Obviously there are advantages to having research be grant-funded (as some of the scandals relating to suppressed pharmaceutical industry funded results attest), and obviously peer review is a good filter of nonsense (but there are scientists working on classified government research or on industrial trade secrets who can’t publish in the formal way), but neither are really essential to the scientific process itself

    • Seems reasonable to me.  If you get paid to play sports, you’re a professional athlete. If you get paid to program, you’re a programmer. If you get paid to do science, you’re a scientist.  You can also be an amateur scientist, just like the others.

      I guess I’d also argue that being zealous about protecting the term “scientist” isn’t all that important. Arguments should be weighed on their merits, not on the title of the speaker. If I work in climate science and I’m speaking about cancer, then I can call myself a scientist, but that doesn’t mean jack. What’s more important is saying “I studied topic X for 10 years”.

  • Mmm.. yes, it’s easier to define a professional scientist than just a ‘scientist’.  A professional gets paid to do science, so that’s simple. You just have to define science!  As a term, it also seems to raise the possibility that non-professional scientists do exist.  But for some people professional identity is the identity that counts.  I’m kind of getting the feeling from your post that that’s how you feel and that the idea of a non-professional scientist is more a linguistic artifact than a reality.
    Myself, I wonder if you can be ‘a scientist’ as a matter of permanent identity or is it a temporary label that only last while you’re doing science, even potentially one experiment? Do you think that one day, in the far distant future, when you retire, you will still be ‘an evolutionary biologist’? Is there some level of competence or time spent that justifies still calling a retiree a scientist?  I could maybe go with that idea, because it offers the possibility in principle of including non-professionals on the basis of competence and contribution.  It’s quite true that in some fields non-professionals aren’t likely to get access to the rare and expensive resources needed to develop competence.  That’s partly why as a society we delegate professional scientists in the first place.  But in some fields amateurs do continue to make occasional contributions and are competent in the relevant knowledge and techniques. Astronomy is an area that springs to mind, despite the huge technology gap between pros and amateurs.
    Thanks for the opportunity to think about it.  It’s an interesting question.

  • I do think some people do cease being scientists. I’m only 40, so I don’t know my future, but I always admired the professors emeritus who managed to go to their labs even at an advanced age and requiring walkers or wheelchairs, and even more the cases of deaths of professors in their labs. So much more admirable than the type that took a traditional retirement of golf and what not.

  • I’d question the “funded by granting agencies” requirement.  Do you mean NIH grants?  The EU Framework Programme?  What about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?  Or venture capital companies?  Unless they are all classed as “granting agencies”, the requirement breaks down.