“Research for America” and some responses I’ve seen

This recent New York Times blog suggests that we use the science stimulus money to pay “people without long-term aspirations to become scientists” who “could do much of the hands-on work,” in the interest of creating jobs and furthering basic science.

This plan is not exceedingly horrible, but it is less attractive to me than one I’ve wanted to put into action for years (more on that below). I have to admit that I’m a geologist and invertebrate paleontologist, which should explain most of what I’m about to say.

First, I have a hard time reconciling the fact that people (at least in the biosciences) equate “science” with “the biosciences”–and all that comes with that name. So I assume when these people talk about “science,” they’re thinking test tubes and a great deal of disposables (pipette tips, etc.). Second, they seem to equate everyone’s path in life with their own–undergrad, grad school, and then a long apprenticeship period that, for some reason, doesn’t end when you get your PhD. My thoughts on that particular system are fairly harsh: if we have so many bioscientists that they aren’t qualified to run their own labs, we either have too little funding for bioscience as a whole, or they aren’t learning enough in grad school.

Back to “Research for America.” The comments on that NYT blog (not a representative sample, I’m sure) are generally against the idea*. I disagree with some of the premises (those above) in addition to the one assumption that undergrads aren’t smart enough to jump into a lab and do work. It’s true that if you want these people to understand what they are doing with all the test tubes and pipettes, it will be a little while before they get up to speed with the rest of the lab. This is what the blog authors are saying: that laboratory technicians are glorified dishwashers (which I have no problem with, having been a dishwasher in my time). That doesn’t mean that they can’t learn or that they won’t learn, just that they’ll need some time to figure out where all the pots and pans go, when to change the water out, and how long exactly to blanch the broccoli rabe.

If your undergrads or graduate students aren’t intelligent enough to follow instructions and understand what they are doing, you might have larger problems at your educational institution. Keep in mind that the people who will want these jobs are those who are already interested in the field, not those who wander in off the street (well, not until the economy tanks out a little more at least).

For those of us who don’t need $2 million a year to buy little pieces of plastic and chemicals, science is a different animal. If you’re working for an ecologist (look! bioscience without the test tubes!), you can apply mathematics and statistics and observational data (once you’ve been trained in on how to observe) to understand what’s going on. If you’re a geologist or paleontologist, you just need to understand basic principals of the rocks, organismal biology, and be able to understand what you’re looking at. I’m not trashing my own disciplines here–I just want to explain that science is not all one thing, and it most assuredly is not all test tubes and trumped-up notions of self-importance because you use those test tubes. In my own department we have thousands of specimens that could be further prepped for study, and we have one undergraduate whose job it is to do that. He’s a business major.

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Now, about my own idea. I know not everyone is destined to run their own research program (be it in a “lab” or not), whether they want to or not. For those who have the good ideas, however, it seems like it’s especially hard to get into the running (and for those bioscientists out there, I do feel for you on the whole postdoc thing). I’d rather we took a large chunk of money and used it to fund young scientists (primarily Post-PhD) in whatever they want to do for a period of three to five years. This would include lab/office space, materials, and a staff. Let them get going on a project and see what happens–by the time they get out of the program they will either have enough experience and publications to make it on their own, or enough knowledge of themselves to choose their career path.

There would have to be a great number of these (let’s call them) fellowships, based on geography and research area. I’m almost inclined to suggest that we distribute them randomly based on the applicants in the interest of serendipity, a sort of lottery for the beginning scientist. Whether they are associated with a University or private organization would not be taken into account. I doubt that true randomness would be taken into account, but at least dividing the awards into several fields would keep the biosciences from eclipsing all the other good science that’s being done–geology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, the list goes on.

I don’t know what the outcome of this idea would be in the long run–I imagine the winners would get pretentious and the selection would become politicized. Every so often, though, we might get a breakthrough from a young scientist who just needed some time to figure something out.

*I’ve found this quite often so far: it’s easier to tear down than it is to praise, which is why many online comments are negative.

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