Field of Science

Scientists: glorified bureaucrats?

I found this a while ago, but no one, to my knowledge, seems to have blogged about it:
Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research
The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them
Lawrence PA (2009) PLoS Biology 7(9): e1000197 (open access)
Go read the article. It's scary. And seems accurate enough even to an undergrad with limited experience. (Shit, I've been jaded already before even going to grad school...)

Within the article is this quote:
“Scientists might have had a Hippocratic oath of their own. They might have promised their gifts to mankind. But instead, I have fathered a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for anything.”—Bertolt Brecht “The Life of Galileo,” version by David Hare
To be fair, doctors aren't exactly saints these days either, being tied up by the madness of insurance policies and a culture that deems it acceptable to SUE(!) a doctor for trying to help a patient. But at least doctors can have their own practice. You pretty much cannot set up your own business as a researcher, unless you're an engineer of sorts. Or if you blatantly contract yourself out to some organisation somewhere, which makes the research even more obviously not objective. There is hardly any real freedom or self-employment. A scientist must become a minion of their funding sources just to make ends meet.

You know how we scientists are fundamentally different from artists, how we hail from different universes and all that? I'm deeply amazed by the parallels between us! It is also nearly impossible for an artist to survive as a self-expressing independent individual - they too must subscribe to fads and funding sources (commissions, etc). They too spend most of their time freaking out over funding rather than actually practising their art. And just like our research, their art is also skewed to please the sugar daddy commissioner. We are just artists who use a different medium with different rules. But many of the common stereotypes used to ward people off foolish career choices (such as those of the fine arts) are eerily as applicable to us. After all, most of us do embark on our chosen foolish careers to satisfy some absurdly naïve inner yearnings and desires; only to find the world absolutely indifferent to our dreams.

We are all but artists-turned-businessmen.

PS: What keeps me trying to stay on this path is the realisation that I'm absolutely worthless for any other kind of job. It's been observed that having limited options often forces one to be quite happy, since there's no point in constantly reflecting upon your choice, so you adapt to it. Yay! =D

Lawrence, P. (2009). Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research PLoS Biology, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197

EDIT: Speaking of academic issues, we're not so hot on the data sharing either...


  1. Well, a solution might be to share the wealth/burden. Team up with another researcher or two and pass around the task of applying for grants.

    I'm not overly sympathetic with the plight of the creative, however. While creativity benefits us all in the long run, somebody's still got to pay for swabbing the halls of academia.

    The classic cartoon of the starving astonomer who becomes a wealthy atrologer is read as being cynical. The less cyncial frame one could add is that he uses some of his wealth to fund his former atronomer collegues.

  2. Perhaps even better would be for researchers to team up and hire a professional grant-writer/business manager. Someone with actual business experience (and interest). PIs are expected to be awesome at everything, from science to human resources to overall lab management to budgeting, getting money, establishing political relations with other labs, etc. A human can only be truly good at a tiny fraction of those skills, and can't do everything. The 'real world' has figured that out a long time ago and has actually become OVERspecialised, eg. a clerk being responsible for one type of form, etc. But that's still much more efficient (and better) than having one person do everything!

    And then this businessman can also take care of obtaining money. There's some jobs out there that specialist in obtaining money for risky projects, and those people could be very useful for academia. Instead of sneering at the 'lowly greedy peons' from the corporate world, perhaps we could actually learn something from them!

    I'm not as much sympathetic to the plight of the creative as to the plight of creativity itself. Creativity has become so unvalued out in the 'real world', and losing it in its last strongholds (arts and sciences) would be kind of sucky, in my opinion...

  3. uh oh... I'm an aspiring scientist AND artist.

    Realizing it's nearly impossible to make a living out of writing novels these days without turning into a book-churning factory for the allmighty publisher, I decided to pursue a career in science. Figured if I need a day job to fund my art, might as well make it a day job I ave a passion for.

    And yes, the parallels between the artistic life and the scientific life, I'm finding out, are eerie. Both are a constant struggle between doing what you love to do, and doing what you have to do to get to do what you love to do.

    Beats flipping burgers.



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