First person: The good scientist

The global professionalisation of science was initiated in the 20th century. It has resulted in the creation of the largest scientific community, the most widespread research facilities and in the widest dissemination of scientific knowledge to date. This may, at first sight, appear to be very positive news for science. Yet, the academic population grew extraordinary fast, in the past forty years. The industrial sector, however, is not always able to absorb the large number of PhDs emerging from the educational system. The competition between scientists in academia is therefore becoming much stronger. This brings to the question of how scientists are selected. More to the point: what does it means, nowadays, to be a good scientist?

Scientists’ perception

This question may have several answers depending on whether one takes the perspective of society or that of the research community. The recently published 2014 Eurobarometer on Public Perception of Science, Research and Innovation, shows that at least half of the people surveyed in Europe expect that science and technological development will have a positive impact on several aspects of society such health, education and environment protection in the next 15 years.

Interestingly, on most issues, respondents in almost all EU countries consider that science and technology can even have a more positive impact on society than people’s actions and behaviour themselves. Thus, in general terms the social perception of what is a good scientist nowadays in Europe might be therefore associated to very constructive values towards society. But does this positive perception also apply within their research community?

Scientist’s perception of each other strongly depends on well-established evaluation mechanisms. These include best track record in academic awards, scientific peer-review papers and projects founding successes. Among these three aspects, the importance of peer-review papers is becoming so crucial that some scientists like David Van Dijk, a postdoctoral student in  computational biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, claimed that an algorithm is able to estimate the probability of becoming a principal investigator only based on publication track.

Sought after skills

Those who fit in the category of ‘good scientists’ in the current peer-review-based evaluation criteria may not always be so. Indeed, those considered successful scientists may have a different profile in the future. An analysis of the future skills needs likely to be required in the general job market featured in a 2011 report entitled Future Work Skills 2020. This report was published by the Institute for the Future (IFTF), an independent, non-profit strategic research group, based at the University of Phoenix, Palo Alto, California, USA. It described the following criteria as likely to become valuable in the future: sense-making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competence, computational thinking, new-media literacy, transdisciplinarity, design mindset, cognitive load management and virtual collaboration.

Is this analysis likely to be valid for scientists? Some believe that may be the case. “There is a shortage of men or women who can combine the charisma of ‘old-school’ scientific leaders with the bureaucratic skills demanded today,” noted science journalist Colin MacIlwain in a 2010 Nature article about future leaders in research. In parallel, good communicators should also be rewarded within science, according to the conclusions of a study by the German think-tank called The Siggen Circle hosted in Holstein, Germany. One of their publication entitled Siggen Call for Action-Shaping science communication 2014 underlines that communication skills might be of particularly importance in the cases where the interests of science and society appear to collide. This also matters when scientific developments become more and more difficult to understand or are not explained in a comprehensible way.

Another study of the international career development programme Vitae—based on interviews with 100 researchers working in the UK—identifies what skills researchers consider fundamental for their daily professional activity. It appears to confirm that some soft skills such as communication, dissemination, public engagement and collegiality are often the most difficult to acquire by scientists. Some agree. “Scientists tend to be straightforward and logical, but lack a degree of diplomacy,” said Elisabeth Bohm, a policy advisor at the Royal Society, London, UK, when asked about the transferable skills scientists need during a recent career fair in London.

Therefore, the importance of soft skills for scientists cannot be underestimated. A good scientist, I believe, should combine the following characteristics: someone who does rigorous science—repeating experiments if needed, presenting negative results—and wants to share their knowledge—teaching, disseminating science. Somebody who believes that education and science are important for society, and vice versa. A successful, albeit modest and communicative person, who still keeps a critical point of view. Someone who accepts that to err is human. And, most importantly, a good scientist should be someone who knows that publication metrics cannot be their main means of being evaluated.

 Guillermo Orts-Gil

 Nanotechnology research group coordinator at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Golm (MPIKG), Germany.

Head of Communications of the Spanish Society of Spanish Researchers in Germany (CERFA).

Opinions and comments expressed here are personal and do not represent those of his host institutions.

Photo credit: Joan M Mas

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