Science: A Confusing Life

For a student of science life is confusing. When I started I always had a clear idea – the beauty in mathematical formalism, the joy in creating and understanding phenomenon in a lab, the pleasure of learning why something is the way it is, the fascination of reading about great minds of the past and the desire to unlock some unknown mystery of nature.

Gradually I reached an advanced stage in the process. I realized that science isn’t simply joy, it is also applying for PhDs and projects and after that for postdocs and faculty positions. It is about impressing people and making the right connections.

I realized that it is imperative that I make connections so that when the time comes I can get good recommendations. I must do research in an area that is considered hot by the general community. When I tell my peers that I am interested in something that isn’t very hot, they sympathize and tell me that I must do that in my spare time but should mainly focus on the hot areas if I want to have a future in the industry/academia. When I try to find out what this community is that decides what is hot and what is not, my peers always talk in a way as to suggest that they are not part of it and they don’t like it either but they have to go along with the system in order to survive.

When I am working on something, I am often told to not discuss things with too many people for the fear that someone else might beat me to a solution and then it will be a wasted effort. When I try to say that I am happy if someone else figures it out, it will be progress in our understanding, they are not impressed. They think I am naive and idealistic, they don’t think I will amount to much.

When I try to do something original and fail, no one seems to have any respect for the effort. But when my peers assign work in which a standard well established method has to be followed mechanically without the need for any intuition, I am lauded for completing it. My prospects seem to be much better this way. My peers happier. The lab is even more of an assembly line with a supervisor dictating procedure and the workers following. My knowledge of the history of science tells me that great discoveries are never made by following procedure, in fact they have almost always happened because people didn’t follow standard methods. There is a triple contradiction here at play. I frequently hear, in talks and in conversation how students like me must strive to produce original and creative work, I fail to understand how these ideas can coexist!

Then there is the race to publications. I need to publish in order to have any respect, publish quickly and in certain journals. I don’t have any problem with sharing knowledge but this is something different. This is a measuring tape imposed on everyone. There is also a journal for everyone. I am told that these structures are in place to ensure a merit based system, I don’t agree but no one really cares. There is an entire structure of metrics, journals, funding, positions and internal politics. The moral high ground of the pursuit of truth, development of technology and service of society provides a convenient cover to the operation.

This industry is sustained through public money in most cases and it should be a little more appreciative of that, a little less arrogant. Shouldn’t it be serving the public instead of being condescending to them? Shouldn’t science be based on developing interesting ideas and not on sustaining an industry by creating random research problems?

I have really lost track of what I started out with, of what motivates me and keeps me interested – desire to understand? a faculty position? doing what I like? pleasing someone? I’ve lost my fascination, my dream, my excitement and enthusiam. We are all paying the price for this with various forms of addiction, depression, mental illness and with our lives.

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