Scientists as Public Figures

For most people, it is rare to see a working scientist on TV, hear one on the radio, or read about one in the news. Nobel laureates become of course instant celebrities, but their appearances tend to fade rapidly from the public spotlight. It is true that the better media outlets attempt to explain what research these men and women are being honored for. But almost always that research is in the past, and the laureates have moved on to posts other than that of “bench” scientists.

Scientists also make brief appearances after they publish a new finding, but the coverage is limited, sometimes badly distored, and often lamentably superficial. A beautiful example appears in Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky (see my review). Finally, scientists appear on the media radar when they issue statements on the political implications of science as spokespersons, administrators or delegates to conferences.

Because of the prominence of these scientists, it is worth asking how they arrived at their present positions. How did their scientific work and the credentials they accumulated as working scientists support their rise to prominence? How do these people influence public policy? As always, interested readers can answer these questions behind the limited information in the media by reading biographies and specialized  histories. But as with more general works of nonfiction, one can only guess at the private thoughts and emotions of such influential figures. Here again, well-written fiction based on first- or second-hand experience can provide unique insights into the process by which scientists’ careers can come to influence history.

When a scientist receives a grant, he or she becomes an administrator, with responsibilities for hiring staff, purchasing equipment, managing the day-to-day work, dealing with personnel issues, and reporting progress to the granting agency. Beyond these tasks most grants require investigators to publish their findings in the relevant scientific journals.

This bare-bones list doesn’t do justice to the spectrum of demands placed on grant holders. For example, an investigator may have to negotiate space and other scare resources with other grant holders in the same laboratory or department. Technically, the grant is usually held by an institution like a university, and these institutions place additional demands and restrictions on the activities of the grant, including monitoring its finances.

The larger the grant, the less time the principal investigator(s) usually have to devote to the scientific work itself. This may seem like a paradox. Shouldn’t large grants especially demand the full attention of the best qualified investigators? Realistically, however, administrative duties leave them with little time and energy to think deeply about  the most challenging aspects of an evolving program of research.

I vividly recall a conversation I had with my adviser one morning during my last year in graduate school. I was serving as the grant’s administrative assistant, and because we both rode an intercampus bus that by design ran through a faculty ghetto and happened to go past the apartment complex where I was living at the time, we frequently had conferences during our brief rides into the main campus. My advisor had become the director of a new research center that same year. When I asked him how he was doing, he said, “It’s really depressing when you just spend three hours of your day trying to find a $100 accounting error.”

When the research itself requires a major capital project such as a particle accelerator or a space telescope, management typically becomes a full-time activity for one or more technically qualified people. Individuals who demonstrate their ability to administer large-scale projects become candidates for posts in even larger enterprises: a laboratory conducting several large projects or an entire agency of government devoted to a gigantic project like the moon landing. At the top of this ladder are a small number of highly visible positions as agency heads or cabinet-level positions.

Those rare scientists with both the talent and temperament for these public posts can sometimes bring current knowledge of a scientific field as well as an understanding of both implications and limitations of publicly funded projects. Yet as A Hole in Texas vividly shows, even the best training and experience may not be preparation for the demands of a job in the glare of media attention. Guy Carpenter would appear to have excellent preparation for directing the Superconducting Super Collider project, but in the event he faces a superstorm of media attention, political collisions, and media frenzy for which few people are equipped.

Menachem’s Seed describes another species of prominent scientist, the delegate to national and international conferences. Unlike scientific conferences where working scientists meet to exchange information about recent findings and major developments in their field, these public conferences bring scientists together with government bureaucrats, politicians, and diplomats, and sometimes representatives of private foundations, to discuss the relevance of scientific research to public policy and international conflicts. These are often highly controversial, as in the panel on human reproduction and contraception which Melanie Laidlaw attends. Meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an especially prominent example of such a conferences.

These two novels give readers a peek into the inner workings of the minds of scientists in the public eye as only fiction can. Sometimes readers also get intimate glimpses of the way training in the sciences–“the scientific method”–can shine an entirely new light on contentious issues. I for one would like to read more such “exposés.”

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One Response to Scientists as Public Figures

  1. Howard Oliver February 12, 2014 at 5:33 PM #

    Thanks for mentioning these 2 novels. We will link to your site in appreciation.

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