o The Frog Blog: What is a Scientist?

Monday, 12 March 2012

What is a Scientist?


Stemming from last week's post on influential figures in Irish science, Stefano Sanvito (one of the individuals listed) conveyed his disappointment via Twitter on the lack of "scientists" on the list. However, Irish Times science journalist Claire O'Connell pointed out that most of the list had a science background and most were involved in research. Thus followed a really interesting debate on Twitter about the definition of a scientist. Sanvito was adament that a scientist is "somebody who's job is to do science", producing "new knowledge, which is reproducible and verifiable". He believed most of his colleagues would agree with his definition. O'Connell disputed this, saying an individual need not be actively involved in research to be considered a scientist. As a former researcher she considers a scientist "as someone who trained as one and uses those skills" in their everyday lives (e.g. writing about science or teaching it in my case). She described it more along the lines of "a way of looking at the world ... and beyond" and that "once a scientist always a scientist". Maria Daly from the excellent Science Calling weekly blog also became involved and I think it's fair to say was slightly divided by the argument (correct me if I'm wrong Maria!).

It was a really interesting debate which got me thinking - is there a divide amongst the science community on the definition? So I thought I would throw this short post together to share my definition of a scientist and ask for your opinion - if you are a self professed scientist or not.

My own personal view is very much along the line of Claire O'Connell's. For me, science is a way of looking at the world, of questioning what we see and looking for ways of making things better. Science doesn't have to occur in a research lab. As a teacher I often describe some of my students as "good scientists", not because they get good examination results but because they cast a questioning eye on their world, look for problems, imagine solutions, experiment and draw conclusions. This is my definition of a scientist. I studied science at university, completed post-graduate research yet have been teaching for 11 years now. I still consider myself a scientist because I too look at the world in the same way. I don't do this in a lab all the time - sometimes I look about my house, find problems, design solutions, experiment and fix things. Science is a process and a scientists follows the process.

Do you agree with Claire & I or Stefano? I'd would love to hear your definition of what a scientist is .....

15 comments:

Claire O'Connell said...

Interesting discussion - nice to have more than 140 characters here too :)

This really got me thinking yesterday. I see myself as a scientist: I studied it at undergraduate level, did and defended a PhD in science and worked as a post-doc doing scientific research. I've had my findings published in the scientific literature.

In my book that makes me a scientist, even though I no longer 'do' science in the lab.

Just like if I had studied medicine or architecture I would carry that knowledge even if I wasn't working as a medical doctor or designing a building.

But the great thing about science is that it offers a lens through which you can view everything, and the more practical skills I learned - such as reading scientific papers, building a 'schema' of knowledge where new findings can fit or challenge, analysing things to see how they work, or whether there are patterns that can link in with something else - they have all been invaluable now that I find myself writing about science as a journalist/communicator.

I can see of course how the term 'scientist' can also define a person who is doing science at a point in time, but that is too restrictive, in my personal and quite possibly biased opinion ;)

As for the list, I realised looking at it again how many have a background in science, whether undergrad, PhD, post-doc and beyond - and that many have gone on to apply their knowledge and skills in other areas, and had an influence on how science us supported or how people engage with it.

I'll stop rambling now - I'm interested to see how others view scientists.

Eoin Lettice said...

This is an interesting question and I find myself substantially agreeing with Stefano on the matter. There can be no dispute that "somebody who's job it is to do science" should be called a scientist. An artist 'produces' art so must a scientist produce science?
Where, I think, we have some scope to manoeuvre though is in how we define what "doing" science is. While I see a big difference between those who "do" science and those who utilise their scientific training to excel in other rolls, I see no major problem in using the term relatively widely. While a narrow definition of science would imply an experimental component, the act of organising, interpreting and explaining phenomenon could also fall under a broad definition of the term.

Anonymous said...

Sanvito was adament that a scientist is "somebody who's job is to do science"...


An essential part of science is communicating effectively, which requires good spelling and punctuation skills!

Humphrey Jones said...

I can't take credit for that punctuation error - copied and pasted that one directly from the twitter machine.

Eoin. A well put argument and I can see where you're coming from. But think of Stephen Hawking. Correct me if I'm wrong but I can only imagine he hasn't been actively involved in research for some time. Does he not deserve to be still known as a scientist. Or using your analogy - Picaso surely didn't produce art consistently towards the end of his career yet remained an artist. I'm
not having a go or defending my point because I'm not actively involved in research. I'm just trying to see all sides of the argument.

Thanks for contributing. H

Triploidtree said...

I'm torn between both scientists /do/ science and scientists are people who apply science in any and all fields.

I would have called myself a student of science up until I got my primary degree, after which point I became a "scientist". I am qualified as a medical laboratory scientist even though I am doing research instead of going on to work in a hospital lab. A researcher is clearly a scientist doing science. Someone working in a QC lab or a hospital lab is often doing the day to day job of repeating and reproducing work, and not generally discovering something new, but we would still regard them as doing science, as would a professional body that would claim to represent scientists.

It becomes a lot fuzzier when you move outside the laboratory. When we speak to children about science and try to encourage them, we point out how they use the scientific method without realising, and how there is science to be done in the everyday world, and tell them anyone can be a scientist. So to some extent, we're a bit hypocritcal when we say science teachers and science journalists are not scientists (despite a primary qualification in science).

I think there's a continuum from the pure research scientist out along (guess who's biased), and the point at which you drop the scientist placemarker is the problem. Similarly, there are people who didnt train as scientists working as scientists (like engineers, and people who get those arts degrees in pure maths and have to apply them to the real world like the rest of us) who work in science, and we would (generally) regard them as scientists (I'm more and more accepting of engineers as I grow older).

Ahhh, so, with that rambling comes no further clarity, but a clear admission of being a Scientist :)

Claire O'Connell said...

Snap TriploidTree! :D

I had just been thinking about the questions of when does one become a scientist and, once you have become a scientist in the strictest sense (maybe the criteria are doing research and publishing the findings?), then when do you stop being one?

Is it the moment you put down the pipette, hang up the lab coat and go do something else? I think that's the point at which you stop being a lab-based researcher.

When people ask me what I do, I don't say I'm a scientist, I say I'm a science journalist. But underneath I still think of myself as a scientist because I trained as one. Perhaps I should move on?

Anyway this is an interesting discussion! And it has made me question a few assumptions, which is what scientists should do of course :P

TriploidTree said...

@Claire On the plus side, whether scientist or journalist, you'll still be an -ist!

Claire O'Connell said...

@TriploidTree Haha, you are far too young to remember this, but you reminded me of the famous 'ology' ad

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEfKEzX9QLE

Maria Daly said...

My answer will probably be controversial as I only have a primary degree in science but no further qualifications. Perhaps many would not think of me as a scientist as I'm not conducting research or writing scientific papers.

There are a number of reasons I still consider myself a scientist, despite this:
1) For me science is like a way of life and after getting my science degree, I felt I could finally (proudly) call myself a scientist.
2) After college, I got a job that required a science degree to apply (so technically I still work in science).
3) For my science writing, I keep up-to-date with new research, read scientific literature and am constantly engaged with the scientific community.

I wrote recently about why science is important to me (http://wp.me/p1AKVA-G1) and my definition of a scientist is similar to this: The ability and knowledge to apply the scientific method.

Claire O'Connell said...

Out of curiosity I looked up the Oxford online definition of a scientist:

noun
a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences:
a research scientist

*
Does that shed any light? :)

Maria Daly said...

Just saw your most recent comment Claire and I think you nailed it on the head.

I think there are people who are scientists (in labs/researching etc) and those who have other jobs (incl. science ones) but trained as scientists/worked in science.

When asked to fill in my work area on forms etc I usually pick "Science" or "Scientist" but in conversation I would never say I am a scientist as it is not my official job title...

Maybe I'm pushing my luck ;)

Humphrey Jones said...

According to Wikipedia "a scientist is, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge. In a more restricted sense, a scientist is an individual who uses the scientific method. The person may be an expert in one or more areas of science."

Does that make us all right or complicate things further?

Marie Boran said...

I think it's a bit more nuanced than scientist/not-a-scientist. Also, the definition is temporal. For example, I see Claire and Maria as trained scientists but not active scientists. And it's not mutually exclusive: Claire is both a trained scientist and a science journalist but not all science journalists are scientists (I fall into the latter category because I am formally qualified as journalist/science communicator*).

I value the role of science communicator but being one does not make you a scientist. A scientist *must* be qualified in a field of science and this must be recognised by a qualification (unless we go into the subcategory of amateur scientist!). Also, in order to be an active scientist, I think most would agree that this involves being actively involved in research (and to some extent being published and acknowledged by your peers for said research).

Having said that, all of us 'ists' and scientifically minded and enthusiastic people do operate within a scientific paradigm and the end goal is to further science so we are all people of science!

*technically I've started a PhD in 'web science' but until I begin the research process I am merely a student of science :)

Claire O'Connell said...

@Marie @Maria I totally agree

And on a more general note - isn't it great that science opens the door to so many types of work, including research, communication, teaching and policy development...

Sylvia said...

I wouldn't like to be the one to tell Stephen Hawking he's not a scientist!

Er, does a degree in Philosophy count? I fear I'm about 2,500 years too late to be called a scientist!

Overall, I tend to agree with Marie's definitions above. Go "people of science"!