Response to debate about what it means to be a scientist

03-02-2021

Last week, two opposing opinion articles started a debate about what it means to be a scientist. A few staff members of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) put together a short response. 

As senior researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), we were disappointed to see the lack of empathy shown by a senior colleague toward a PhD candidate in these pages and on LinkedIn. Early career researchers are struggling with doing original work during a global pandemic. They are often juggling childcare and other caring commitments, they may be far from friends and family, and they face a precarious future. Our role as senior colleagues is to offer as much support as we possibly can (while recognizing that we may also be finding the situation difficult).

There are at least two different issues at stake. First is the continued reliance on flawed metrics. Professor Schmidt says he is not himself motivated by numbers of publications and value of grants. Nonetheless he questions Ms Bassil’s right to call herself a scientist based on such numbers. The value of our work comes from the students and colleagues we inspire by our words, spoken and written, not the number of publications or citations, and not the number of  hours in the classroom, lab or library.

Maastricht University has signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA https://sfdora.org/read/). Its main aim is to improve how academic research is evaluated, and to move away from journal-based metrics which were never intended to evaluate the quality of individual papers or people. This is also central to the ongoing discussions at UM and nationally about ‘Recognition and Rewards’. There are many different types of research. Within FASoS, research is characterized by its diversity. Our colleagues study many different topics, using different theoretical lenses and methods. Output can and does take many different forms in order to reach the wide variety of audiences who may be interested in our results.

The second issue is the nature of academic work. Those of us privileged to be working in universities, with permanent contracts, need to recognize the freedoms we have and not deny them to others. We have many choices, about the topics we study, how and when we do so. We need to protect those freedoms for future generations. And while we recognize the advantages of an academic life, we should not fall into the trap of ‘science as vocation’ as that can lead to exploitation.

Not all of everyday life is pleasant. However, taking a walk, enjoying a meal with friends and family, reading a novel, making music are just a few examples of activities that can be rewarding in themselves and at the same time provide moments for thought, reflection and inspiration.

Hylke Dijkstra, Adam Dixon, Emilie Sitzia, and Sally Wyatt

Response to debate about what it means to be a scientist
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