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Breed scientists better for a better breed of science

There needs to be a fundamental shift in how a scientist is viewed and measured. Søren Rajczyk

Breed scientists better for a better breed of science

There needs to be a fundamental shift in how a scientist is viewed and measured. Søren Rajczyk

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. In this instalment, Jee Hyun Kim examines how the culture of academia needs to change its attitude - for the better.


If the great goal of science is to improve society, shouldn’t the smaller, everyday objectives of a scientist also reflect that dream?

According to all the grants I’ve written or reviewed in the past, scientists aim to help the needy (whether that’s in the context of health, environment or energy resources). But anecdotal evidence suggests the daily mission of a scientist may not be in step with this ideal.

Earlier this year I had a colleague who urgently ran into my office and, upon closing the door, burst into tears saying: “My supervisor just called me f***ing idiot”. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but it belongs with the many tears and frustrations I’ve witnessed from students and colleagues due to rudeness, condescension, tardiness and manipulation from other scientists.

Akiko Photography

My colleague’s tears also reminded me of a piece of information told to me repeatedly when I moved back to Australia in 2010 – that my new division head was a kind person, a quality rare enough to be brought up many times in discussion with different people.

Is kindness not the norm in science? How can we say we are helping society with our work if we don’t treat our lab members, students and colleagues with kindness and respect on a daily basis? Shouldn’t we, the scientists, be the ultimate humanitarians who strive towards benevolence alongside excellence in our quest for the truth?

In the current culture of “surviving” rather than “thriving” as a scientist, there’s no pressure to acquire better personal qualities.

The way we are

There’s an uncomfortable, largely unspoken truth in the work life of scientists and researchers: if two people with the same intelligence, luck and diligence work alongside each other, the one who bullies and exploits – in addition to their work – will likely receive better placement of their authored work.

zoethustra

Some are applauded for being cutthroat, while others are criticised for not being cutthroat enough. That is because our performance is typically measured in terms of publications and funding acquired. Authorship and “placement” are our top priority.

I’ve heard a colleague explain her method of supervising Honours students in the following way. She gives them a project, doesn’t teach them anything because it’s too time-consuming, and if they – somehow – figure things out by themselves, she keeps them as PhD students because, in her words:

I’m not here to help the students, they are here to help me.

Maybe the current culture of science is reinforcing those behaviours with more funding and prestige, hence breeding future generations to be more selfish. Then, students who are educated in science may walk away a more knowledgeable but not a more mature person.

Solutions

There needs to be a fundamental shift in how a scientist is viewed and measured. We need to breed scientists who are humanitarians every day - and not just on paper.

Current ARC and NHMRC grants to fund fellowships for scientists typically involve 40-60% weight on the individual’s research output. The rest are typically made up by research plan or “vision” of the scientist, and contributions to research and the society. Promotions within a workplace also are similar.

I don’t personally disagree with such distribution, but how the distribution is scored is not very specifically outlined. In particular, the contributions to research and society are guided to include supervision and mentoring of students, editorial experience, leadership positions in scientific societies and public communication/advocacy. These components can be weighed differently depending on the personal taste of the reviewers.

I think the quality of those components can be assessed by the people receiving the contributions. For example, scoring or feedback from students and junior scientists/mentees can be made anonymous and mandatory.

What if you have five PhD students but they all think you are a terrible supervisor? At the University of California LA, students’ feedback scores are critical in academic promotions (which makes sense as students are technically their employers, paying their salaries).

When someone is applying to become a lecturer, they should provide referee details of students taught beforehand. Giving a good lecture often involves respecting the audience and their precious time. Perhaps such measures will breed more respectfulness for humanity.

To breed more open-mindedness, we should make science communication to non-scientists and school pupils mandatory to grant and prize winners. When I communicate with the public, even as little as one hour a month, I learn there’s more to the universe than my little office, and that I’m not always right.

Also, I have a government fellowship which means my salary comes from taxpayers’ money. So I feel a responsibility to lay people.

littlebirth

Collaborative efforts should be rewarded. These can be difficult because your collaborator may turn out to be someone who will nitpick and criticise because of their own insecurities rather than the quality of the work, but dealing with such problems professionally breeds character.

Collaborations between new and junior scientists should also be reinforced, not just the ones that involve a senior scientist. Time and again I hear stories of the professor wanting his or her cut of the money – and wanting to be involved as a co-author on every publication (to which he or she contributed nothing in terms of creative input) – simply because he or she helped get the money.

We scientists would also benefit from some form of etiquette training: sometimes people don’t know that they are being really mean and just need to find out.

Importantly, if you are a kind and talented scientist, don’t change and don’t leave the rest of us. I do think there are many of you out there, quietly believing. Don’t let the bad guys who may do well discourage you.

Also, do not pay forward other people’s meanness to you. A good scientist will learn from her or his own mistakes – but a brilliant one will learn from other people’s.

This is the fourth part of our series Maths and Science Education.