Are scientists self-serving or public servants?

Posted by Anonymous
on Friday, October 13, 2006
I heard it mentioned more than once at this week’s American Astronomical Society (AAS) Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Pasadena that scientists are a self-serving lot interested only in their own narrow research topics. Are they?
The issue became front and center almost immediately during NASA night, a DPS evening event featuring a panel of three NASA members and the AAS’s executive director. Panelists included NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Colleen Hartman, NASA Acting Director of Planetary Science Division Jim Green, Director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and NASA Planetary Science Subcommittee Adviser Sean C. Solomon, and AAS Executive Director Kevin Marvel.
The panel’s unified refrain to the audience of planetary scientists was — and I’m paraphrasing here — “We’re listening, don’t assume there’s government funding for your research, contact your representative in congress to pitch your research ideas, do your part to gain public support.” The audience visibly bristled with discontent at the notion scientists are, in effect, pandering for government handouts like homeless people asking passersby for spare change.
Here are a few reasons why scientists might be sensitive to such a comparison. A life in science is often a nomadic existence. Many research appointments last only a year or two, and scientists must follow the jobs around the United States, and even around the world, if they want to work. There are a limited number of available positions, so competition can be fierce. And government funding for science is shrinking.
Budget cuts at NASA and a 2007 NASA budget that Congress hasn’t yet passed, meaning fiscal year 2007 programs will run on fiscal year 2006 funding levels until the 2007 budget is passed, has scientists clamoring for information about which proposals will be funded, when they will be funded, and how much funding they might receive.
Can you imagine taking a job in which you don’t know how much money you will make, when you might get paid, and knowing you will likely have to reapply for that job in 12 to 24 months or find another position and move yet again? While it’s true many scientists manage to work their way into tenured positions with institutions that offer stability, good pay, and the opportunity to focus on their particular research interests, sometimes in great detail, many others struggle for years after obtaining their PhDs in low paying post-doc positions or as part-time adjunct instructors.
Taken as a whole, scientists seem to be neither purely self-serving nor solely public servants. It’s true they must work hard to have their interests served, and they often must look to government institutions and the public to fund their proposals. Their work serves the public in a variety of ways, but that doesn’t begin to acknowledge their overall contribution to society. Let’s hope they continue doing what they’re passionate about despite the challenges.
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