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What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

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One of the dangers of thinking hard about your obligations is that you may discover one that you’ve fallen down on. As we continue our discussion of the obligations of scientist, I put myself under the microscope and invite you to consider whether I’ve incurred a debt to society that I have failed to pay back.

In the last post in this series, we discussed the claim that those in our society with scientific training have a positive duty to conduct scientific research in order to build new scientific knowledge. The source of that putative duty is two-fold. On the one hand, it’s a duty that flows from the scientist’s abilities in the face of societal needs: if people trained to build new scientific knowledge won’t build the new scientific knowledge needed to address pressing problems (like how to feed the world, or hold off climate change, or keep us all from dying from infectious diseases, or what have you), we’re in trouble. On the other hand, it’s a duty that flows from the societal investment that nurtures the development of these special scientific abilities: in the U.S., it’s essentially impossible to get scientific training at the Ph.D. level that isn’t subsidized by public funding. Public funding is used to support the training of scientists because the public expects a return on that investment in the form of grown-up scientists building knowledge which will benefit the public in some way. By this logic, people who take advantage of that heavily subsidized scientific training but don’t go on to build scientific knowledge when they are fully trained are falling down on their obligation to society.

People like me.

From September 1989 through December 1993, I was in a Ph.D. program in chemistry. (My Ph.D. was conferred January 1994.)

As part of this program, I was enrolled in graduate coursework (two chemistry courses per quarter for my first year, plus another chemistry course and three math courses, for fun, during my second year). I didn’t pay a dime for any of this coursework (beyond buying textbooks and binder paper and writing implements). Instead, tuition was fully covered by my graduate tuition stipend (which also covered “units” in research, teaching, and department seminar that weren’t really classes but appeared on our transcripts as if they were). Indeed, beyond the tuition reimbursement I was paid a monthly stipend of $1000, which seemed like a lot of money at the time (despite the fact that more than a third of it went right to rent).

I was also immersed in a research lab from January 1990 onward. Working in this lab was the heart of my training as a chemist. I was given a project to start with — a set of empirical questions to try to answer about a far-from-equilibrium chemical system that one of the recently-graduated students before me had been studying. I had to digest a significant chunk of experimental and theoretical literature to grasp why the questions mattered and what the experimental challenges in answering them might be. I had to assess the performance of the experimental equipment we had on hand, spend hours with calibrations, read a bunch of technical manuals, disassemble and reassemble pumps, write code to drive the apparatus and to collect data, identify experimental constraints that were important to control (and that, strangely, were not identified as such in the experimental papers I was working from), and also, when I determined that the chemical system I had started with was much too fussy to study with the equipment the lab could afford, to identify a different chemical system that I could use to answer similar questions and persuade my advisor to approve this new plan.

In short, my time in the lab had me learning how to build new knowledge (in a particular corner of physical chemistry) by actually building new knowledge. The earliest stages of my training had me juggling the immersion into research with my own coursework and with teaching undergraduate chemistry students as a lab instructor and teaching assistant. Some weeks, this meant I was learning less about how to make new scientific knowledge than I was about how to tackle a my problem-sets or how to explain buffers to pre-meds. Past the first year of the program, though, my waking hours were dominated by getting experiments designed, collecting loads of data, and figuring out what it meant. There were significant stretches of time during which I got into the lab by 5 AM and didn’t leave until 8 or 9 PM, and the weekend days when I didn’t go into the lab were usually consumed with coding, catching up on relevant literature, or drafting manuscripts or thesis chapters.

Once, for fun, some of us grad students did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of our hourly wages. It was remarkably close to the minimum wage I had been paid as a high school student in 1985. Still, we were getting world class scientific training, for free! We paid with the sweat of our brows, but wouldn’t we have to put in that time and effort to learn how to make scientific knowledge anyway? Sure, we graduate students did the lion’s share of the hands-on teaching of undergraduates in our chemistry department (undergraduates who were paying a significant tuition bill), but we were learning, from some of the best scientists in the world, how to be scientists!

Having gotten what amounts to a full-ride for that graduate training, due in significant part to public investment in scientific training at the Ph.D. level, shouldn’t I be hunkered down somewhere working to build more chemical knowledge to pay off my debt to society?

Do I have any good defense to offer for the fact that I’m not building chemical knowledge?

For the record, when I embarked on Ph.D. training in chemistry, I fully expected to be an academic chemist when I grew up. I really did imagine that I’d have a long career building chemical knowledge, training new chemists, and teaching chemistry to an audience that included some future scientists and some students who would go on to do other things but who might benefit from a better understanding of chemistry. Indeed, when I was applying to graduate programs, my chemistry professors were talking up the “critical shortage” of Ph.D. chemists. (By January of my first year in graduate school, I was reading reports that there were actually something like 30% more Ph.D. chemists than there were jobs for Ph.D. chemists, but a first-year grad student is not necessarily freaking out about the job market while she is wrestling with her experimental system.) I did not embark on a chemistry Ph.D. as a collectable. I did not set out to be a dilettante.

In the course of the research that was part of my Ph.D. training, I actually built some new knowledge and shared it with the public, at least to the extent of publishing it in journal articles (four of them, an average of one per year). It’s not clear what the balance sheet would say about this rate of return on the public’s investment in my scientific training — nor either whether most taxpayers would judge the knowledge I built (about the dynamics of far-from-equilibrium chemical reactions and about ways to devise useful empirical tests of proposed reaction mechanisms) as useful knowledge.

Then again, no part of how our research was evaluated in grad school was framed in terms of societal utility. You might try to describe how your research had broader implications that someone outside your immediate subfield could appreciate if you were writing a grant to get the research funded, but solving society’s pressing scientific problems was not the sine qua non of the research agendas we were advancing for our advisors or developing for ourselves.

As my training was teaching me how to conduct serious research in physical chemistry, it was also helping me to discover that my temperament was maybe not so well suited to life as a researcher in physical chemistry. I found, as I was struggling with a grant application that asked me to describe the research agenda I expected to pursue as an academic chemist, that the questions that kept me up at night were not fundamentally questions about chemistry. I learned that no part of me was terribly interested in the amount of grant-writing and lab administration that would have been required of me as a principal investigator. Looking at the few women training me at the Ph.D. level, I surmised that I might have to delay or skip having kids altogether to survive academic chemistry — and that the competition for those faculty jobs where I’d be able to do research and build new knowledge was quite fierce.

Plausibly, had I been serious about living up to my obligation to build new knowledge by conducting research, I could have been a chemist in industry. As I was finishing up my Ph.D., the competition for industry jobs for physical chemists like me was also pretty intense. What I gathered as I researched and applied for industry jobs was that I didn’t really like the culture of industry. And, while working in industry would have been a way from me to conduct research and build new knowledge, I might have ended up spending more time solving the shareholders’ problems than solving society’s problems.

If I wasn’t going to do chemical research in an academic career and I wasn’t going to do chemical research in an industrial job, how should I pay society back for the publicly-supported scientific training I received? Should I be building new scientific knowledge on my own time, in my own garage, until I’ve built enough that the debt is settled? How much new knowledge would that take?

The fact is, none of us Ph.D. students seemed to know at the time that public money was making it possible for us to get graduate training in chemistry without paying for that training. Nor was there an explicit contract we were asked to sign as we took advantage of this public support, agreeing to work for a certain number of years upon the completion of our degrees as chemists serving the public’s interests. Rather, I think most of us saw an opportunity to pursue a subject we loved and to get the preparation we would need to become principal investigators in academia or industry if we decided to pursue those career paths. Most of us probably didn’t know enough about what those career paths would be like to have told you at the beginning of our Ph.D. training whether those career paths would suit our talents or temperaments — that was part of what we were trying to find out by pursuing graduate studies. And practically, many of us would not have been able to find out if we had had to pay the costs of our Ph.D. training ourselves.

If no one who received scientific training subsidized by the public went on to build new scientific knowledge, this would surely be a problem for society. But, do we want to say that everyone who receives such subsidized training is on the hook to pay society back by building new scientific knowledge until such time as society has all the scientific knowledge it needs?

That strikes me as too strong. However, given that I’ve benefitted directly from a societal investment in Ph.D. training that, for all practical purposes, I stopped using in 1994, I’m probably not in a good position to make an objective judgment about just what I do owe society to pay back this debt. Have I paid it back already? Is society within its rights to ask more of me?

Here, I’ve thought about the scientist’s debt to society — my debt to society — in very personal terms. In the next post in the series, we’ll revisit these questions on a slightly larger scale, looking at populations of scientists interacting with the larger society and seeing what this does to our understanding of the obligations of scientists.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. David Whitlock 4:22 pm 01/27/2014

    It isn’t just scientific knowledge that needs to be “paid back”.

    The only reason humans are not still scrabbling in the savanna for roots and berries is because humans took what their parents taught them and built upon it. We drive on roads because earlier generations built those roads. Not everyone needs to be a farmer because mechanized farming was developed. That allowed the children of farmers to leave the farms and learn to do other things.

    No one can “pay back” the knowledge debt that we owe to past generations. We can only “pay it forward” to future generations so they can pay it forward too.

    The one-sided selfishness of those who refuse to acknowledge the help they got so they can pretend they don’t owe anything to anyone is the problem with the economy today. Warren Buffet knows that he owes his success to the infrastructure that generations before him built and currently maintain. He knows that on the savanna he would likely be lion food.

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  2. 2. rkipling 5:44 pm 01/27/2014

    Offering a philosophical perspective to a philosopher feels a bit odd, but I’m going to do it anyway.

    I think I understand your feeling of obligation to society for the subsidy of your education. What I take from your narrative is that each PhD carries around a personal debt ledger. Let me offer a macro view of these subsidies. Our society and the world is better for educating the brightest among us. Most would agree that society benefits from most people receiving a high school education. I argue the same principle applies to PhD’s. A major scientific advance from one among thousands pays for all. When we can determine exactly who will make the discoveries, maybe then we could save some money. Until then, betting our money educating as many of the brightest minds as possible carries better than even odds in my view.

    If it helps, think of the education subsidies as society’s way of tricking you PhD’s into making our lives better. If one of you occasionally goes down the rabbit hole into philosophy, it is a risk we should be willing to take. Since you personally advocate for the ethical behavior of scientists and may reach a few of them, I have confidence we have turned a tidy profit in your case. I consider you paid in full.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:59 am 01/28/2014

    Do you really think a scientist owes something to society? Somebody who does Ph.D. has big lost earnings, compared to what an equally intelligent person could earn as cosmetic surgeon or stock broker.

    Science in society is nowadays treated as just investment in technological advances, no moral value here. Scientists should not consider it too moral considering eg. that they are seen as stupid nerds, not somebody forging the future of mankind. Truthful reporting of discoveries – yes, some further moral obligation to eg. spread the englightment in society – no.

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  4. 4. rshoff2 10:58 am 01/28/2014

    We all owe society for nurturing, social benefits, and the infrastructure provided to us (by each other) that makes our modern lives possible. But I see the struggle of trying to define exactly what form that payment should take. “how” do we pay back?

    Perhaps it’s not transactional. Perhaps there is no debt, no balance sheet, and no interest due. Perhaps what is required during the course of our work -be it a meeting or a spreadsheet, a project or a task- is that we consider who we are affecting and how we are affecting them. When we do that, perhaps we can put recenter our society a bit. Perhaps when we do that we help the trains run on time, just a bit. Perhaps the perspective we take into our work is where the payback comes from.

    Not transactional, but attitude. Appreciation. Good will.


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  5. 5. rshoff2 11:10 am 01/28/2014

    Jerzy – I agree that the most burdened members of society accumulate the least reward! I agree that those attaining high levels of education may end up with great debt and relatively low paying jobs. I agree that science is becoming a commodity to create wealth for industry and their stockholders.

    However, the answer isn’t to deny that scientists have obligations to pay society back. They are in a greater position of power to pay society back than their stock broker counterparts are. What we should be demanding is that not only should scientist pay society back, but we should all be trying to do that from whatever position we hold.

    Although Janet Stemwedel is reflecting upon the scientists’ obligation she is not excusing the rest of us from ours.

    I think scientists are in a unique position because their education based in the very knowledge and tools that can make life better for all of us. When they leverage that knowledge and we provide the tools, what should they use them for? I think that is from where the ‘payback’ question arises.

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  6. 6. rkipling 1:57 pm 01/28/2014

    Jerzy v. 3.0.,

    After reading a few of your comments (here and other blogs), my guess is that English isn’t your first language. That’s perfectly fine. The majority of the world’s population don’t speak English as a first language. I mention this because it may be that this particular topic may be best understood within Western cultures or perhaps Confucianism. I don’t exclude other philosophies whose tenets are unknown to me.

    Please understand that I only express my own view of Western Weltanschauung, but I will attempt to explain why this topic has relevance to many of us. It’s possible that these views are influenced by religious philosophy, but I won’t reference that specifically.

    Not everyone in our culture chooses their profession entirely based on earnings potential. We don’t consider the person who dies with the most stuff the winner. Sure the practical aspect of earning a living enters the equation based on individual circumstances, but for most it isn’t the only consideration.

    I don’t know what basis you have for declaring scientists are thought of as stupid nerds? I don’t claim expertise on pop culture, but that view is outside my experience. One of the most popular tv sitcoms is populated with PhD characters. The characters don’t seem to be objects of ridicule. I’m acquainted with quite a few people with PhD’s. I don’t get the impression they feel themselves to be faceless cogs in the wheels of technology.

    Part of the concept of a debt to society seems to come from a recognition that taxes taken from others were redirected to subsidize the author’s education. Think of it as an expression of gratitude. Probably the larger motivation for many of us is that we have empathy for our fellow human beings. What the source of this empathy may be is unknown to me, but it is there. It is our nature to try to help others even when (and perhaps especially when) they do not know we did it.

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:08 pm 01/29/2014

    I feel it is the society, due to the greed and short-sightedness, broken some principles of social transactions from which come the obligation of scientists to repay something to the society.

    For example, are scientists really obliged to progress advancement of knowledge, when in many disciplines grants are given only to the most immediate and narrow practical applications?

    Are scientists obliged to present the truth and only truth, if they are actually expected to be marketing and creating some hype in competition for grant money?

    Are scientists obliged to work for the good of society, if government funding is cut and jobs are found only in for-profit companies?

    This breaking of social contract is sad and ultimately will be damaging to society, but remains a fact. Or maybe I am too pessimistic, scientists at any age complained about not getting money or recognition.

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  8. 8. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:21 pm 01/29/2014

    I cannot analyze in detail the concept of social contracts, obligations etc in the society. This is more a job for philosopher or social scientist.

    I just think that nobody is obliged to help the adult man by force. By extension, scientist is no longer obliged to help the society if the society gives no funds, no opportunity, no recognition and makes no use of discoveries.

    I wish very much want that progress and science-oriented attitude returned to USA, and eg. space program was restarted. But this is not so.

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  9. 9. NormNelson 11:08 am 01/30/2014

    This is a really great series and thanks. I want to turn this around on you, Dr. Stemwedel, and ask you to challenge your own assumptions about your education. When I was a graduate student (during the same time period as you!) I was paid less than half time, and I worked as a research assistant for my wonderful advisor and as a teaching assistant for my department. Didn’t you? I didn’t earn a major fellowship from one of the agencies, but if I had, it would have been posed as a research proposal, and I would have carried out the proposed research – thereby discharging my duty (for the sake of relevance to our situations we are leaving out the case of failure here). I feel I discharged my obligations at the time of my education by working on my advisor’s research grants (which did frequently coincide with my graduate research goals, but not always), and helping her to discharge her scientific obligations. Now that I am an independent scientist I feel obligated to meet the terms of my grants and contracts, but I am now in no way motivated by a need to account for salary I got in 1990 and neither should you be.

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