Saturday 17 July 2010

Chargaff on a scientific career

“How is science done in our days?

“Here I must immediately make a distinction between science as a profession and science as the expression of some of the faculties of the human mind. The two are not necessarily connected.

“When someone tells me 'I am a professional scientist', it does not automatically mean that he is a scientist.

“The distinction I am suggesting here has nothing to do with the question of talent. There have always been more or less gifted scientists, and there were even a few, very few, scientific geniuses. But what I want to bring out is that as a profession science is one of the more recent ones. It barely existed when I began my studies. (...)

“One entered a career in science, just as in history or philosophy, by trying to become a teacher at a college or even a high school. There were very few jobs, and almost none that paid enough to live on, except for the position of the professor himself. And there was usually only one professor for a discipline.

“Hence the old students' saying that there were only two ways to make a university career: per anum or per vaginum. You tried to become the professor's darling or you married his daughter. Obviously, this limited the choice: some professors were very nasty, some daughters were very ugly. Girl students were altogether out of luck, but there were only a few of them.

“You may conclude - and you are right – that this was a most unpleasant system. But it had one advantage: it acted as a sieve, letting through the few who could no do otherwise. By requiring what amounted to a pledge of poverty, it kept out all those who, to use a nasty term, were not ‘highly motivated’. It produced a slightly smaller number, but probably a much higher density, of good scientists than does the present system.

From Heraclitean Fire (1978) by Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002)


Comment: Chargaff was the best writer among scientists (of any that I have encountered). He was also exceedingly wise. And he was pessimistic.

Because of this combination, Chargaff's writing must be approached with considerable caution.


Bill said...

When in the mood to provoke a colleague, I ask "Would our field progress more quickly or more slowly if all our salaries were halved?" The clever ones get annoyed since the correct answer is so contrary to their self interest.

I disagree in emphasis with Chargaff I think. It is not that the screening mechanism is worse, really. It is that the job is so much better that careerists no longer self-select out.

The academy is a very good gig indeed. It pays well (yes, it does!). It is not particularly demanding. It affords enormous personal and professional autonomy. It carries with it absurd levels of social status. Thus, it attracts legions of careerists. It used not to because it used not to be a good gig.

Thirty years ago, tenure decisions were not made by counting up publications; evaluating a career could not be done with a cv and a calculator. These changes were demanded by the careerists. "Tell me, specifically, what I must do to get tenure. Tell me, specifically, what I must do to publish papers. To get grants. To get my PhD. Etc." I write this all down to rising salaries, prestige, and access to power. This attracts dutiful, personable, drudges who want a way to turn hard work and social skills reliably into successful careers.

I am constantly amazed at the delightful frission one feels at meeting someone who is actually interested in ideas and in getting ideas right, rather than in publication-counting and keeping score in academic politics.

Syd said...

Re the issue of science as a career, I believe that no one put it better than Einstein: "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it. One should earn one's living by work of which one is sure one is capable. Only when we do not have to be accountable to anybody can we find joy in scientific endeavor".