Trials & Tribulations of the Questioning Scientist

Note: This is meant to be a very interactive series of articles. I will ask you for feedback and questions as we delve deeper into these complex issues.

Introduction: From the dawn of human consciousness came the need to identify and document knowledge, presumably as a means to enhance the survival of a species. To tell a story of one’s findings is a gift from past to future generations. The evolution of writing allowed humans to record observations with much greater detail than with memory or oral language, but it also made possible for younger generations to look back and question the findings of their elders. While written language first appeared in Mesopotamia 3500-3000 BCE, depicting the everyday lives of the writers, it was not until the Era of Ancient Philosophy 500-300BCE when processes to seek truths of nature began to materialize. During this time, Plato and Aristotle stressed the importance of observation and reasoning, respectively. Together, they laid the philosophical foundation for documentation and refinement of knowledge that was later built upon by Ibn Al-Haytham of Egypt, one of the first theoretical physicists, who wrote:

“The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” – Ibn Al-Haytham Book of Optics (11th century)

… which resonated ~600 years later with renowned philosopher and scientist René Descartes, during the Scientific Revolution.

“In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display order.” – René Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule #10 (1701).

These are just a few of the greatest scientific philosophers whose work, passed down across centuries, cumulates into what we know today as the Scientific Method – a systematic way to link observation with reasoning. These ways of critical questioning, methodical reasoning, and the transfer of information through mentorship have become hallmarks of academia.

As with any social institutions, ideologies and demographics evolve with time. How do common practices in modern academia bolster or undermine the original philosophy of science? I hypothesize that the institution of academia and the original goal of science have become marred with groups of powerful individuals who behave inappropriately and perpetuate an environment that is both unfriendly to students and detrimental to scientific inquiry. Of course, science has always had a tumultuous past, for example during the time of Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. The real-life evidence I will provide is from and to be analyzed within the context of modern academia, where competition is fierce, productivity is key, and researchers often find themselves stressed for money, deadlines, and results. The need to publish, sometimes at the expense of scientific integrity, is apparent in the increasing number of retracted papers for fraud and error in the past few decades. Furthermore, undertones of classism, elitism, hierarchism, and sexism – inherent to an upbringing in a patriarchal society – are further exacerbated by the well-intended nature, but often-abused perks of tenure. 

Evidence #1 (Definitely older, supposedly wiser.): NIH statistics show that of all principal investigators (PIs) funded by R01s, there is an increasing number of total awards going to those over the age of retirement (66) with a decreasing number of total awards going to those under the age of 35. The age discrepancy has two contributing factors: 1) tenured faculties are delaying retirement and 2) universities are decreasing the availability of tenure-track positions to increase non-tenure track and part-time positions open to the younger, job-seeking population.

A majority of all R01 funded PIs are white, and the majority of tenure-track faculties are male. Fewer women than men apply for R01s, though first-time success rate between sexes is not significantly different. Longitudinal studies show men are more likely than women to get subsequent grants. The reasons behind these gender and race discrepancies for the prestigious and unparalleled R01 have been debated. While it is true that faculty outside of the old, white, male demographic – such as young faculty, underrepresented minorities, and women – have exclusive access to other funding opportunities, it is unlikely this is the sole explanation. A quick scroll through any university’s faculty page will yield a majority of… you guessed it… old, white men.

            So why is this bad? To bring Evidence #1 back to my hypothesis, all I have to say is that while there is much to be respected inexperienced scientists, a lack of diversity means a lack of new ideas and creativity. Furthermore, how can we expect that science will truly advance society’s needs if the demographic of those in science does not match the demographic of those in need? Just like in politics, we need representatives who are truly representative of the general population. You very well should know that an answer only leads to more questions. My questions for you now, dear reader, are: How do you think the pace and quality of scientific discoveries would be affected if more funding were given to more diverse faculty at the expense of funding for the majority demographic? What do you think are some reasons why fewer women apply for R01s? Why do you think fewer women receive grant renewals? Why do you think there are fewer women in academia?

Evidence #2 (With great power, comes great responsibility.) Not surprisingly, the demographic of administrative and executive positions reflect that of the general academic population. While there may be a few token minority individuals who are eager to help ‘even out’ the playing field by sitting on these committees, their voice remains unheard when majority votes are used, and their research productivity often takes a hit when committee duty calls.

A recent example of discrimination that has caught media attention involves the reputable Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which has a total of 33 tenured faculties. 28 of these are male and 5 are female, 3 of which filed gender discrimination lawsuits claiming they have been consistently barred from the same internal funding opportunities as their male, ‘equal’ counterparts. The last of the lawsuits occurred in July of 2017, but this is not a new event. Salk has a history of recruiting male faculty; between 2000-2003, 7/9 men accepted assistant professor positions at Salk, while 0/5 women accepted. These longstanding gender recruitment and funding distribution differences, highlighted by the recent lawsuits, indicate the presence of a systemic issue that has yet to be addressed publically until now.

“Salk has allowed an ‘old boys club’ culture to dominate, creating a hostile work environment for the Salk tenured women professors.” – Prof. Vicki Lundblad

Understandably, the formation of friend groups among likeminded individuals is inevitable, but in a system where “who knows who” is important and networking is a must, minorities who cannot connect are left at a disadvantage. Anyone with a keen eye in academia will see that sexism is not unusual and can occur through multiple venues.

“I didn’t feel comfortable networking at social events at conferences because it was always a bunch of old white men drinking and then inviting people to their hotel rooms. I would always go with a buddy and leave early, just in case, even though I knew I was missing out on an opportunity to make connections.” – Prof. Young Minority Female

To bring Evidence #2 back to my hypothesis, it is clear that there are individuals in academia who are given, but do not fulfill, responsibilities to ensure equality. My questions for you: How then do we combat these systemic issues? How do we break the ‘old boys club’ when those who are given the responsibility of combating discrimination behave irresponsibly? Personally, I believe the club is hard to be broken from the outside in. Leadership must set an example by actively pursuing a sense of community that is all-inclusive. Otherwise, the formation of ‘old women’s club’ and ‘minorities club’ will be inevitable. Do you agree or disagree? 

Interlude: These first two pieces of evidence focus more on the faculty side of things. Next two are more student-focused.

*Take a break and comment with your thoughts so far!*

…to be continued.

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