What is a proper measure for a good scientist?

John MacFarlane jmacfarl at hgmp.mrc.ac.uk
Mon Feb 10 05:46:37 EST 1997

On 9 Feb 1997, Alexander Berezin wrote:

 <Noam Shormon's original request snipped> 

> Life is generally rather unfair, but if one takes all the
> relative scales, the modern science (the way it is set now) 
> is very close the top of the list. Corporate stuctures, 
> grantsmanship feods, exploitation of the talents of the
> young people (like postdocs and grad. students), theft of 
> ideas and misappropriation of credit of the subordinates, 
> the gestappian practice of the secretive ('anonymous') 
> peer review - those are the landmarks of the modern science 
> enterprise. Fortunately, the literature on this is 
> extensive and accumulating fast (read letters in journals 
> like Chemical and Engineering News and many others). 
<snipped for brevity>
> If, nonetheless, you decide for the formal career in science,
> your chances of true discoveries are quite slim, most likely 
> you will contribute to the informational noise and redundancy, 
> and your creativity, if you reveal any, will most likely
> be oppressed, as for the science establishment the creativity 
> is about as welcome as the Crucifix at the vampire party.
> Alex Berezin
> (Professor, 30 years in science)

Dear Alex,

Oh dear, what a moan! Do I detect one grant proposal rejection too many?

Science at the end of this century, that has seen fantastic conceptual
insights backed up but huge technological leaps, should be one of the
most exciting careers in the world and yet talk to any scientist and all
you're going to get is a tale of woe and worry.  The idea that science is
dead, that we've discovered everything worth finding out is utterly wrong.
The idea that science can only be done with big budgets and that anything
original will not get funded is also wrong. Both of these assumptions show
a lack of ambition and understanding.  

What I get really upset about is that the champion of the moan around the
coffee machine rarely seems up to doing anything to improve his position. 
Who are scientists to think that they have a god given right to work in an
Ivory Tower with endless funding?  There are many positive steps which can
be taken. These range from setting up local groups to discuss local
problems (especially effective for post-docs and graduate students who
often can feel the most lost in academic institutes) to getting involved
in politcs. In the UK anyway they are loads of science lobby groups that
take their problems straight to government. 

What about you Alex?  What are your credentials?  As a Professor what have
you done to change all the things that you complained about above?

And lets all try to cheer up a bit...after all we could be accountants!


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