I am a scientist.
I’ve been thinking for a long time on the meaning of this word. What does exactly mean, to be a scientist?
I do science. I design and work on scientific projects. But I also have several other titles, I am a professor, a teaching figure. I am an academic researcher. What is the difference between these roles?
I restarted my academic studies not too long ago, after a short dive in industry. I am an engineer, so I am naturally inclined to assume a practical stance to solve problems that afflict modern life. However, industry life, albeit fulfilling and rather risk-free, could not stop my inner turmoil and my growing uneasiness with the fact that modern industry, in any field, is based on a capitalistic view of society and this leads to the other fact that technology and engineering industries, as well, are primarily concerned with their own benefits and gains than the benefits brought to society as a whole. So I went back to academia, in the belief that academic scientific advances, uncorrelated to the concepts of profits and losses, would set the basis for stable, pure technological advances that would benefit and transform society slowly but steadily.
Mind you, it has not been that easy. Many people who see, and often envy, my eclectic and seemingly flexible schedule, have no idea of the hardships I went through in my passage back to academia. Just to put things into perspective, first of all, I gave up a stable 40K EUR salary for a feeble 1200 EUR/month allowance which I had to physically show up at the scholarship desk and sign to receive, each month. Forget taking long vacations, if I wanted to get paid I could not leave the country for long periods, for any reason – not even academic reasons! I went from a relaxing 9-to-5 job, 40h/week, to countless nights and weekends at the lab, crunching data in the uncertain hope to get some acceptable results. My credit card has been unceremoniously canceled after just one late payment, due to late deposit of my scholarship, and applications for a new one have been rejected for about 2 years. Online payments? Amazon? Flights? Luckily, in some cases Japan still offers good ol’ cash payments through convenience store machines. I have been technically homeless for some time. I slept at the lab for months, couchsurfed, ended being adopted by a loving Japanese family for nearly 2 years. If you think this is an extreme case, think again:
…you can dig Google for hours. I’m not even the only one in my own scientific network, I know personally or to a 3rd degree of people who had to sleep in their cars or on the lab couch for a period at some point in time.
But it did not matter, in the grand scheme of things, because I loved my job. I loved science. I still do. However, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify the choices that Academia, the “Institution of Science” is making.
Becoming a scientist is comparable to becoming a monk. It’s not a job, it’s a vocational call. Zealous scientists are often said to be consumed by the holy fire of Science, as zealous religious people are consumed by the holy fire of God. But to respond to that call, you need to enter a vocational institution, being it Academia, or Church (of any denomination, and faith). These vocational institutions are constituted of and led by humans. Unfortunately, humans are fallible creatures. And so, their creations and institutions are also fallible. In fact, not all members of these institutions, which are supposed to be constituted for the greater good, to selflessly support humankind, are equally involved in the cause. Some of them are only interested in boosting their ego with power and public recognition, some of them are dishearteningly carrying on a career that was somehow imposed upon them, some more have started enthusiastically but lost their way, and hope, in the daily grind. Very few manage to maintain sanity and a sense of purpose, let alone keeping the fire alive.
See the unsettling parallels from both a detached, scientific, and involved, laymen’ point of view:
Moreover, it is becoming more and more difficult to do a good job even for the most driven individual, due to increasing competition in one group and a dwindling population in the other. These issues increase the overall workload on the individual, causing stress, anxiety a sense of doom, lowering output quality standards and increasing propensity to misconduct.
In the urgency of demonstrating our worth to the outer world, by which we are evaluated and judged, we lose our purpose and our values along the way. It is important, so, to remember, first of all, that pursuing our vocation gives us joy. Dump the futile and mundane worries and re-ignite the holy fire.