“Two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind, both of them side by side, so determined… they’re just humans, with wives and children.”
Uplifting pop music, written about scientists and capturing their motivations? Never! Yet, despite its unlikeliness, it exists. I invite you to have a listen to this song by the Flaming Lips, while we take a look the motivation of scientists in the real world.
I’m going to start with what motivates me. It’s the joy of that little moment of discovery, of finding something out that no-one else has ever known. I’m not the only one, though: it comes up over and over. I recently interviewed some Imperial students for a feature in the upcoming I, Science magazine. One of them, Sarah, described her work in statistical genetics. I’ll admit: it sounded boring, so I asked rather bluntly why she was doing it.
Aha! A little spark appeared in her eyes, and she related the kick she gets when, after crunching reams of data, she gets a new lead on a gene that could be linked to hypertension. From the data mining of statistical genetics, to cracking open a rock to find a new fossil, science delivers moments of magic. A more blunt, and illustrated, depiction of this can be found at SMBC (warning, contains a swear).
That can’t be all, though. I’m going to go out on a limb and say money isn’t really a motivator; a scientist can be comfortable, if they get a good position, but unless they manage an important patent or the like, they’ll never be rich. They’re unlikely to be famous – I’ve reviewed papers without even knowing if the author was male or female, let alone what they looked like. So we need to dig deeper. But before we do, have a quick mental break and imagine the view I was enjoying here:
OK, you’re back? There’s the ‘teacher’ role. No matter where a scientist works, their job requires them to pass on knowledge. It could be academic to undergraduate, supervisor to PhD student, peer to peer or a chat with a relative at Christmas dinner. For some scientists, this teaching and mentoring can be the focus of their career. In the words of my Honours supervisor:
“I see myself as an educator primarily, both in terms of undergraduate teaching and also research training – and that is what motivates me most. I have research goals too, but these are framed primarily around opportunities for research training.”
That’s an ideal that I believe he’s achieved well (thanks, Pete!) and many other scientists around the world derive satisfaction and pride from taking on such a role.
Then we have the starry-eyed scientists of the Flaming Lips song. Those racing for the cure, the solution, or just an extra bit of the puzzle that will make the world a better place. It could be youthful zeal, or idealism, or a deep concern for the world, or a simple desire to make a positive impact however they can. In the words of my friend Will, who’s deep in the clutches of a chemistry PhD:
“At this stage in my career, the focus of my research is quite narrow; however, I hope that eventually my research has a broader impact on environmental management and conservation.”
I seem to be painting a fairly rosy picture of scientists, but I don’t think it’s far from reality. Yes, there have been frauds in science; there can be nastiness and scandal at small and large scales. Scientists are just humans, some with wives (or husbands) and children, and all the standard human foibles. However, the people who uncover and deal with such problems are usually – you guessed it – scientists. It’s a discipline underpinned by the assumption of honesty, tempered with healthy skepticism and that competitive instinct so vibrantly captured in the song Race For The Prize.
I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on this one: did I get it right? Are you a scientist, and if so, why do you do science? And if you’re not a scientist, why not? Let’s have a chat about it!