Today’s post will be more reflective than formal. I have been awake since 3 AM, spending the morning catching up on the work I missed last week as I attended the International Science Youth Forum in Singapore.
My time at ISYF made me realize some things about the pre-undergraduate research community, and I’d like to discuss them with you this morning.
I think that essays on ethics and philosophy can be written about how we as scientists interact and communicate with others. I do not think I have the research in behavior that could make those kinds of arguments. However, I do have observations.
My time at research competitions has witnessed a variety of personal emotions. At first, in Sophomore year, I just wanted to get through my presentation, and make clear to my judge that the fossils fuels we all relied upon were useless and damaging. By Junior year, however, I was more intrigued by winning. I knew that winning would bolster my name in my town’s research class, indicate to my mentor how dedicated I was, and give me a sense of satisfaction. And as I proceeded through my scientific career (let’s say between the months of February 2016 to early January 2017), my research became more about competition, winning, and publication, than it did about actual science.
Now, this is a tad hyperbolized. I still cared, overwhelmingly, about sustainability. But I conflated my passion for the environment with competition that I believed could validate my efforts. And I witnessed the same present in scientists my age. I found it impossible to interact with other students at competitions without feeling as though they hated me for trying to win. Someone always had a snarky comment, or rude stare, as our friendship dismantled from one student performing better than another. Now, this was not happening within my school’s research community, but rather, in the regional research community.
My understanding of science is that it is highly collaborative. It depends upon the unison of multiple forces who strive to discover not just for themselves, but for one another. In the words of the president of Nanyang Technical Institute, Bertil Andersson, (and I paraphrase from ISYF), science is about people; it’s ultimate discoveries are made to help people.
So why is the pre-undergraduate research community that I observe in America so focused on the self versus the consortia?
At ISYF, my personal goals shifted from winning to understanding. For the first time in about eleven months, the competition did not matter. As friends and strangers visited my poster, I was empowered by the questions they asked. They did not strive to compare their own research’s legitimacy to mine. They wondered about the processes, protocols, and ramifications. Their questions sought to relate my research to both real global purposes and scientific inquiry. And I found that astonishing. After so many months of fear about scientific interaction with peers who would undeniably be changing scientific history alongside myself, my scientific experience at ISYF was refreshing, to say the least.
So all of these paradigms and observations bring us to one question:
What is our scientific responsibility?
Well, in keeping with the ideas of collaboration, discovery, and purpose that science promotes, I think that both young and old scientists need to put competition behind them. Because competition exists at all levels. For the young, competition exists in fairs, forums, and talent searches. For the older, competition exists in grants, forums (again), awards, and publications. And I think that for both generations, we forget that the awards of competition are not for competition itself, but rather for what drives competition: the science.
As scientists, we need to discern between pragmatic discovery and competitive reward, acknowledging that the latter is only designed to serve the former.
I think this has become most clear to me through the genuine curiosity of young scientists, who enter the community with the idealism necessary amidst the failures, rejection, and difficulties of scientific work.
However, after all of these observations and analyses, I ask you to question what I have written. Is my sense of scientific responsibility in keeping with yours? Perhaps we must unite our personal understandings of scientific responsibility to reach a true answer. Either way, science is about collaboration, not competition. Let’s strive to make the community a bit more reflective of that central idea.