WHAT IS A SCIENTIST?
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Students from the Art & Science Research group were thrown into very deep water on 15 September 2020, as only one day after our first seminar we were invited to attend the annual Bjerknes Centre conference which brings together climate scientists from the University of Bergen, the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre, NORCE, and the Institute of Marine Research.
In celebration of the Centre’s 20th anniversary, we heard a lot of celebratory, nostalgic and forward looking accounts, next to the latest findings, method and technologies in climate research – everything from traditional field work with the most rudimentary materials to the use of artificial intelligence.
When the art students got together the following week to discuss our impressions, we found that while we had learned a lot about what these scientists are focusing their research on, we were still left with a lot of unanswered questions about the inner workings of how science and scientists, in general, are made.
Thomas Spengler, professor in meteorology at the University of Bergen, was kind enough to join us for a follow-up 2h session where he clarified everything we were curious about. The following is written synopsis of our conversation over Zoom:
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q: Science as a competitive field. How are careers made within it?
A: First of all, one needs a university education including a PhD. Then, similar to many other pursuits of a career, one needs to have a good reputation as well as a good network. Reputation is built on the work one performs as a scientist, its quality and significance for the field. As research is seldom done alone in solitude, a good research network, which usually is highly international, is key in succeeding in a career in science today.
Q: What is required of an individual to become a legitimate scientist?
A: Legitimacy as a scientist is usually measured by the scientific output that a scientist produced. This is usually done in form of scientific articles presenting the conducted work to the peers in your field. These publications have to undergo scrutiny by your peers before publication, which is a further test of legitimacy. Other community engagements are also contributing to the legitimacy, such as serving on the board of a journal or organizing workshops and conferences.
Q: What roles do peer reviews, consensus, publishing, citations play?
A: Publications are ultimately what every scientist is measured by when it comes to his or her scientific productivity and impact. In order to publish, one’s work needs to pass a peer review screening before publication is possible. This is usually a thorough quality check of the conducted science, which would have commonly been also presented at conferences or internal seminar to double check the soundness of one’s ideas and reasoning.
Consensus, as with most human endeavors, has always been a part of science in one form or another, though it probably had different meanings for different fields. Usually, science is based on hard facts that speak for themselves and the notion of consensus is alien to such a process. However, most conclusions are based on theories and models that required certain assumptions, which can be more or less soundly defended. Such a process would then require a consensus about the methods employed to reach the conclusion at hand.
Publishing is the common way to convey science, so it has a very high value in science and it is thus not surprising that it is also connected to one of the most common evaluation criteria for scientists.
Furthermore, the impact of a scientist is more and more measured by how often his or her work gets cited. Therefore, citations have also played a more and more important role in the evaluation of scientists and their worth in their career path. Q: Who decides what science is performed? Does the individual scientist drive the agenda, or are there wider parameters?
A: In general, there are differences in terms of who is conducting the science. If employed at a private research institute, the institute would dictate the science that is performed and it might be driven by economic interests or other parameters. However, a professor at a university or in many governmental research institutions will be allowed to be free in his or her pursuit of science.
Of course, a department or university can still set research agendas depending on who they hire and what research profile this person has. Overall, I would still say that every scientist is most likely still driven by own interests and will then produce the best science, though the actual pathways can change due to external circumstances and for example funding incentives by other bodies, either governmental or private. Q: How does the funding work?
A: You have a research idea and you write a proposal. There are different schemes for funding, some more free in terms of what kind of research can be conducted and some more politically motivated. Depending on own research interests one needs to find the most suitable funding source. Alternatively, one can also identify an interesting funding source and tailor one’s research interests to the funding that might be available.
Q: It wasn't clear from the conference presentations where scientists stand politically in regards to actual climate change. Is there a reason for this? Would an articulated political opinion diminish the objectivity of the science, or is it so obvious that it does not even have to be mentioned? Do scientists talk politics in private and among each other? Are they existentially driven by it?
A: In general, science should follow the ideal to be independent. The facts should speak for themselves and the scientist is just the medium communicating them. However, science is, of course, conducted by people and people have personal interests and beliefs, which could then make them look not so independent anymore. Thus, especially with topics of larger societal, political, and ecnomic implications, it is even more important for a scientist to be identified as independent. Otherwise, he or she could be seen as speaking out of political conviction and not out of scientific reason.
Therefore, scientists are often careful on how they respond to political questions when they are in a scientific context. Often, many scientists prefer to stay with a purely fact-based discussion and deliver what they are specialists in: scientific facts. The actual decisions are then political, societal, and economic and need to be taken by politicians and economists, who are either elected by the people they represent or are running a company they own.
Of course, every scientist is also a citizen and therefore has a political opinion. However, ideally it should not the political conviction that drives the quest for the scientific facts, as this might be perceived as not objective anymore. However, if your scientific findings support a conviction that you feel should be defended based on the objective scientific findings, one could argue that it would then also be the duty of the scientist as a citizen and scientist to defend these convictions, though often issues are more complex than they could be simply addressed by coming from one specific field of science.
The Corona pandemic is another interesting example, where medical scientists might have different recommendations for the general public than economists, and all of their evidence might be put in question if consulting a psychologist about the challenges with the pandemic. In a way, the latter is a nice example for the need for inter-disciplinary research and collaboration across fields if one wants to achieve more holistic recommendations.
THANK YOU Thomas for your time in answering our questions and for all your enthusiasm in setting up this course!
Watercolour portrait of Thomas Spengler by Aleksandra Mir