On Being a Scientist

by Stephanie Chasteen on April 14, 2009

The National Academies has released another one of their stellar reports – On Being a Scientist. The report is a thoughtful look at the challenges facing scientists — ethics, personal, and professional issues. These reports are always so well-written, and serve as great guides for years to come. Here are some excerpts:

Scientific research offers many satisfactions besides the exhilaration of discovery. Researchers seek to answer some of the most fundamental questions that humans can ask about nature. Their work can have a direct and immediate impact on the lives of people throughout the world. They are members of a community characterized by curiosity, cooperation, and intellectual rigor.

However, the rewards of science are not easily achieved. At the frontiers of research, new knowledge is elusive and hard won. Researchers often are subject to great personal and professional pressures. They must make difficult decisions about how to design investigations, how to present their results, and how to interact with colleagues. Failure to make the right decisions can waste time and resources, slow the advancement of knowledge, and even undermine professional and personal trust.

The report discusses how to intellectual property rights, research misconduct, how to treat data properly (harder than you think!), conflicts of interest, and authorship and attribution, among others. Here’s a snippet of a story on a tough authorship decision:

A much-discussed example of the difficulties associated with allocating credit between beginning and established researchers was the 1967 discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell, then a 24-year-old graduate student. Over the previous two years, Bell and several other students, under the supervision of Bell’s thesis adviser, Anthony Hewish, had built a 4.5-acre radio telescope to investigate scintillating radio sources in the sky. After the telescope began functioning, Bell was in charge of operating it and analyzing its data under Hewish’s direction. One day Bell noticed “a bit of scruff” on the data chart.

Many argued that Bell should have shared the Nobel Prize awarded to Hewish for the discovery, saying that her recognition of the signal was the crucial act of discovery. Others, including Bell herself, said that she received adequate recognition in other ways and should not have been so lavishly rewarded for doing what a graduate student is expected to do in a project conceived and set up by others.

You can read it online at the link below:

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