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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.

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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)

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

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