23 December 2009


Boscoh at the Trapped in the USA blog laments a perceived lack of curiosity.

Many researchers become masters of their own research field but have minimal interest in areas outside their own. For such scientists, it is the qualification of knowing that counts, not the knowing itself. We do research so that we can publish prestigious research so that we can be recognized as prestigious scientists. Anything other than this is a sign of amateurism. Perhaps it’s a way for socially awkward people who played too much dungeons-and-dragons in high-school to claw back some kind of respect in a hostile world.

Speaking as socially awkward high schooler (and undergrad, and grad student, and...well, you get the idea)...

It’s one thing to be interested. It’s another to get the job done.

David Mamet has a memorable chewing out scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, where the character of Blake yells at his team (edited to be work safe):

Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to sign on the line which is dotted! You hear me...?

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABC, and AIDA.)

A-B-C. A-always, B-be, C-closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!!

For science, it’s A-B-C-D. – Always Be Collecting Data. The point of the exercise is to generate new knowledge. To do that, you need data. Getting data takes focus. It takes discipline. As New Scientist helpfully pointed out earlier this week, science is boring. A nearly obsessive desire to complete a task is sometimes what it takes to do the job. For an extreme case, listen to this interview about Grigori Perelman, the recluse who solved the PoincarĂ© conjecture.

For instance, one of the hardest things for me to do is run replicates, because I know what the answer is going to be. Perhaps it indicates I am more interested in qualifying of knowing rather knowing. But it is necessary.

I say this as someone who agrees with Boscoh. I have taken pride in the number of different species have been featured in my research. I joke that have scientific ADD. I’m a dilettante.

But I shouldn’t pretend for a second that it hasn’t cost me.

If someone were to come up to me, like Mamet’s Blake, and say, “I have a continuously funded R01 at a major research university. How much did you bring in? You see, pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing,” I might call him rude, and say that’s not what matters to me (which are both true). But I have to admit that such people are often very good at what they do. They get the data. A. B. C. D.

A lot of students are also dilettantes. And it’s no surprise that many students have problems making the transition to professional scientist, because being a professional requires a certain clarity of purpose to getting the job done. Some are able to keep that bit of breadth, but professional science, like selling real estate, is about closing. The great ones finish.

Focus and discipline and getting the data out the door are not the only skills a scientist should have. There is a huge advantage to reading widely, and to having different points of view. But focus and discipline should be respected.

1 comment:

Sproglet said...

Heard about this?


What a load of crap...is money all that counts these days?

Sorry, mini rant, comes of working in a uni!