Science is boring.
This is probably a phrase you heard at least once in your life. Most likely, it came from the mouths of those who didn’t particularly enjoy science or didn’t do well in science-related classes. It was a comment that us scientists (or soon-to-be scientists) were always quick to defend. Maybe a little too quick. Because regardless of who said it and in what tone it was said, I am a scientist and I’m here to tell you that I agree…science can be boring. In fact, more often than not, it kind of is.
I feel like scientists as a whole keep the ins and outs of their career on the down low. I mean, of course, our friends and families might hear about our daily trials and tribulations. Or, if you’re like me, the entire internet can discover when you’ve had a bad week in the lab! (This week has been a pretty good week, by the way. Thanks for asking.) But what about the public? We most certainly don’t disclose that those twenty data points took us a whole year and many bottles of wine to analyze. Let’s not even bring up the fact that we only answered Question A because we ran out of funding and couldn’t get enough data for Question B. Even when talking to the little ones—the ones with bright eyes and curious minds—we only point out the positives. We say science is amazing, awesome, fascinating, exciting, and insert-preferred-adjective here. They’ll be breakthroughs. You’ll make a difference. You can help cure cancer or stop climate change!! Yes, it can be hard, we (too) quickly gloss over…but if you’re passionate enough, smart enough, disciplined enough…you too can be part of this life changing scientific journey!
(Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration… but you get the point.)
That’s what we say. It’s how we promote or defend the passion that we build our lives around. But that’s not the complete story, is it? Because though science is something we love, it can be a huge pain in our butts sometime. After all, who really enjoys the days spent staring at a computer screen debugging code… or the weeks spent repairing an instrument…or the months spent wondering why the data simply isn’t making any sense…or even the never-ending battle to secure enough funding to start our projects in the first place? Better yet, which one of us enjoy learning time and time again that we usually don’t have the slightest clue what we’re doing. It’s all improvisation guided by the higher ups that (secretly) don’t have a clue either… But do we express all this to the public? Do we tell this to the future aspiring scientists?
Our portrayal of the scientific method is, quite frankly, a half truth. We only show the end product—the conclusions—but no one talks about the process and time (and number of grad students) it took to get there. If we did, the methods section of my (hopefully future) paper would go something like this:
“Data collected through a GC-ToF-CIMS [insert technical stuff here] that was painfully handcrafted by three grad students and a post doc over the course of a year. This instrument was used at [insert description of field study here] in order to [insert cool science objectives here]. While there, it was repaired numerous times on top of a 30 m (100+ ft) tower in order to get the following usable data that we (literally) cried and bled for. Please enjoy my science.”
Unfortunately, were not that honest. Maybe on twitter, but certainly not without a cloak of anonymity around us. And I feel that sometimes hiding the truth of our scientific struggles can cause a variety of problems. Actually I can think of several off the top of my head, but for the sake of time and word count, I’ll just focus on one: hiding our struggles in the pursuit of scientific knowledge can actually have an effect on which young mind will quit their journey before ever joining our world of science.
A study from Columbia University interviewed a group of students. They asked them a simple question: describe a scientist. Most students gave the responses one would expect. Words such as hard work, curiosity and interest were highlighted. Essentially, anyone could become a scientist if they tried hard enough. However, when asked if they would become a scientist in the future, the views quickly changed. Many students admitted that becoming a scientist just wasn’t for them. And this wasn’t due to a lack of interest in the subjects. Rather, their discouragement stemmed from other reasons. Simply put, they didn’t think they had what it takes.
Science is talked about in terms of breakthroughs and “Ah-ha!” moments. When discussing the big names in science–Einstein, Curie, Bohr, Faraday, Tesla– words such as “intelligence”, “genius”, and “talented” are too easily tossed around. And when a typical person thinks about the next forerunner in science, who do they picture? Do they see the grad student that had one too many cups of coffee and is sitting in a dim lit lab at an ungodly hour wondering why their experiment failed for the umpteenth time? Probably not. I would guess that typically, the general public would think of a well dressed professional (probably a white male…but that’s a different problem) that graduated the top of their class at a highly ranked school in the nation. They diligently go to lab everyday and their life seems like a science montage in a Hollywood film. Beakers are bubbling. Instruments are humming. And then one day, BAM! A revelation hits and a discovery is made that ends up on next day’s news.
Yeah. No. Anyone who’s gone through even just one science lab course can tell you that that’s far from the truth. But unfortunately, that’s the appearance we give off when we don’t discuss the method, the time, and the emotional toll it took to make that discovery. We think the word scientist equates to a genius who has their life together; someone who just got lucky and happened to have the natural talent to succeed in their science courses. And I feel that this notion simply creates an us versus them mentality. They–the students– believe that they’re simply not capable of being one of us–the “intelligent, talented scientists,” which is what was concluded from the reactions of the student’s in the study mentioned above.
However, all hope is not lost because the study didn’t stop there. In fact, the interview progressed, students were separated into three groups. The control group heard only about the achievements of scientists; the typical stories that we’ve heard since grade school. On the other hand, the two other groups heard of different struggles the scientists went through, either within the scientist’s life or during their scientific process. As it turns out, those who heard of either type of struggle improved their science performance after the interview compared to the control group. In particular, lower performing students were the most affected by hearing about a famous scientist’s struggles because suddenly, the scientists were just like them. They had a personal connection…the similarity of facing a challenge and getting through it. It wasn’t us versus them, anymore. The famous, supposedly genius-level scientists were now at their level, someone who struggled and grew from their struggles. Now, a career in science seemed now more achievable.
Of course, not all students are deterred from the great achievement stories. In fact, some students are inspired by them and making a discovery of their own serves as motivation to get through all the rigorous course work. But somehow, 40 % of all STEM majors in the US end up dropping out or switching away from STEM subjects. Of those who make it through, even fewer tend to go on and get a graduate degree. Now, I haven’t any good resources to support this, but I feel that it is simply because no one ever tells these students just how difficult, tedious and unglamorous science can be on a day to day basis. And then, when these students hit a roadblock or get caught up in the monotony of science, they assume that they’re the only ones facing this issue that everyone refuses to talk about: Science sometimes sucks…
I’m just going to end this by copying a Tumblr post I made, that seemed to resonate with a lot of people:
I feel like not enough people openly admit how boring science can be on a day to day basis. Like, I just spent days fiddling with Matlab; writing up scripts and functions that can properly index and sort through this giant data set we have on our hands. This was followed by days of debugging everything because I’m literally learning Matlab on the fly and so I obviously have no clue what I’m doing and will be followed by months of analyzing said data after reading a sufficiently long list of papers.
Collecting the data was fun. Building the instrument was fun (most of the time). This…this is not as much fun.
Yes, I love science. Yes, I chose it as my career. And yes, I love what I do (most of the time). But sometimes it’s just tedious.
What are your thoughts?
Reference for the Study:
Lin-Siegler, Xiaodong, et al. (2016) “Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles on High School Students’ Motivation to Learn Science.” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 108(3): 314-328