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You are right in demand­ing that an artist should take an intel­li­gent atti­tude to his work, but you con­fuse two things: solv­ing a prob­lem and stat­ing a prob­lem cor­rectly. It is only the sec­ond that is oblig­a­tory for the artist. -Chekhov

If only we could say the same for scientists!

Even if depicting a problem as it really is is sufficient to accomplish literary art, in science we must go beyond this, and actually solve a problem. And while we may be less eloquent in the literary sense, there is all the more expectation of an answer, a discovery, and a revelatory conclusion.

If only you could see our modern world of science and academia, dear Chekhov. A world of intense funding competition, stringent outcome-focused research, and esteem derived from citations and impact factors. I wonder what you’d have said.

You are not just an artist, remember, you are a physician too. You are a scientist.

We have a problem problem in science. Not only do we have to state the problem correctly, we also have to solve it. Or, in the case of science PhDs, at least do some pilot studies or literature searching that might lay out the foundations of developing a strategy to consider how we may devise a way of thinking about contemplating the prospect of speculating how we could potentially solve it (pending further research, obviously).

This problem problem could go two ways. Sure, scientists try to solve problems, and through solving problems, try to change the world. Sometimes they change the world for better, and sometimes for worse. I suppose it depends on whether the problem is stated correctly in the first place – I mean, not aligned with logic alone, but also with common human values. But equally, there is far too much superficial esteem in science – esteem taken from the ‘ability to attract research funding’ [viz. save the university money and generate revenue], ‘produce high impact research outputs’ [viz. make our academics look smart], and ‘contribute to enhancing research excellence in the institution’ [viz. push us upwards in the league tables]. What’s the trade-off between genuine solution-oriented research and research aimed at a cycle of perpetual funding? Is there one?

What is this science we’re in, anyway? Is there just one science? Is it a self-serving, funding-perpetuating science, or a science in the human interest? Or are there two sciences, multiple sciences?

The problem problem isn’t the only problem in science, however many sciences there might be. More than that, we have a problem of integrity in science – especially those of us who have ‘made it’. By ‘made it’, I mean those of us who have a decent income, relative material comfort, and reasonable job security. Those of us, in many cases, can’t seem to draw the line and say, “I’ve got my living out of science, now let me do science in the human interest”. We go on in our careers, winning more and more funding, publishing more and more papers, always adding each new accomplishment to our CV, eventually becoming a celebrity in academia. We don’t shut up when we retire either – we employ an army of naive postdocs to keep our publication record going. Somewhere along the line, when we ‘make it’, we’ve got to dismount from the manic ever-more-funding-ever-more-prestige academic bandwagon and start practicing science in the human interest – direct action instead of publication, public involvement instead of academic dissemination.

Another problem is knowing when to dismount the bandwagon.

Friend of WikiLeaks

June 2020


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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!