Career, Science

“The well-trained but uneducated scientist now dominates the scene,” says Gottfried Schatz

I have just read Gottfried Schatz’s editorial The faces of Big Science in the current issue of Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology.

Schatz has served as Secretary General of EMBO and as President of the Swiss Science and Technology Council – and thus, as expected for such a senior scientist, the editorial is a bird’s eye view of the current life science scene tracing the development from Small Science to Big Science over the last 50 years.

The paragraph that really caught my eye was this one:

Big Science is no longer a calling of the few but is a huge professional enterprise […]

[O]ur science curricula teach scientific facts, technical tricks, ‘professional ethics’ and ‘research responsibility’ but not what science is, what it demands from us or how it changes our view of us and the world.

The well-trained but uneducated scientist now dominates the scene.

Well-trained but uneducated, hmmm.

I am pretty sure that formal scientific training is much better organized now than it was 50 years ago, when I assume scientific training was more like an apprenticeship. The reason is simply the much larger number of students and postdocs that we have now compared to then.

I am also sure that Schatz is right: training programs are technical and the sociology, philosophy and theory of science are generally not covered. Science is dominated by an Hedgehog-ideology of Focus, Focus, Focus – so why spend time on thinking about `what science is’?

However, I find it hard to believe that it was much different 50 years ago. Then as now scientific work was technical. And if scientists thought about `what science is, what it demands from us or how it changes our view of us and the world’, they did it in their spare time – then as now.

I try to encourage my group to think broadly about science and thus become educated, not only well-trained. I generally do that by pointing them to books I found helpful. My three favorite ones are:

  • The Emperor of All Maladies for an history of our field
  • The Golem to debunk the view that science is the straightforward result of competent theorisation, observation and experimentation.
  • Natural Obsessions, a rare view into how a premier scientific lab worked in its heyday.

But while several in my group started reading them, I am not sure anybody actually finished. And I don’t want to pressure them. I really think it is up to each one individually whether they are into meta-science or not – now and 50 years ago.


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