Archive for the '[Science in Society]' category

The Passion of the Scientist

There have been a few responses (updated: Janet has one also, as does Mike) to this chuckleheaded essay chiding, well, basically anyone who isn't in the lab 60+ hours every week about how they lack passion about their research, and are essentially letting sick people die because they think they have the "right" to lives outside of the lab.

I wish I were kidding, but I'm sadly not. In sum, Professor Kern (a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins) is obsessed with how many people (or few, by his observation) are around in the lab on weekends, and how this represents the death of American science as we know it (OK, I may have extrapolated a bit, but still). A choice quote:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

Though he uses the strawman figure of "country club hours" and "35-40 hours/week," he does go on to note in the next paragraph that surveys (but not his own!) have found that scientists work more along the lines of 50 hours/week or more, but summarily dismisses it.

I'm cranky about this story because I *have* been in the lab 50+ hours a week over the past 2 weeks--something which is rare for me. It has nothing to do with my lack of passion, but simply the fact that I do carry out a lot of work off-site and don't feel I need someone like Dr. Kern looking over my shoulder and clocking my hours as a measure of my "passion" for the job and the science.

I'm cranky because Progeny was sick yesterday, but I had no one else to take care of samples that needed to be tended to, and so Progeny and I went in to work with a sleeping bag, book, and a bottle of 7-Up and some saltines to nap on my office floor while I took care of my samples as quickly as I could.

I'm cranky because being in the lab 50+ hours a week does mean that there's hardly anything left of me for my family, and because this hits women harder than men and there are already enough damn hurdles that we face that we don't need more set up by Dr. Kern and his ilk, and I don't need to have my passion doubted or measured by the hours of facetime I put in.

I'm cranky because no matter how good the science is or how much time you spend doing it and how much you sacrifice or how much you put up with, some asshole will still dismiss your science and talk about how you're a "witch" behind your back with competing colleagues.

I'm cranky because the examples of "passionate" scientists he uses are, of course, both men.

And I'm cranky because I still have several weeks of 50+ hours in the lab left to go before this winds down and I can get back to writing papers and grants--probably off-site--to keep my lab going. But I guess that crafting lit reviews and writing paper discussion sections just doesn't show my passion for the subject like being in the lab at 3PM on a Sunday would, right, Dr. Kern?

19 responses so far