Is a scientist someone who does science? It depends on who you ask, according to a presentation at the AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. A century ago, an occupation based on intelligence was regarded as a blue-collar endeavor. Sherlock Holmes was better than the police because he was an amateur detective, self-educated in science. Today, a large number of scientists, and certainly much of the public, thinks you are only a scientist if you are government funded.
What do scientists think? They separate real scientists from others using their own metrics, and they often involve self-identification. No scientist would say a real scientist engages in self-selection, but the lack of political diversity in the life sciences, along with a lack of gender diversity in the physical and social sciences, leads many to believe they are as prone to segregation as anyone.
Scientists instead mark a real scientist as being about the job, according to a recent survey.
"If you're not curious, you're probably not a real scientist," said Robert Pennock, a humanities professor at Michigan State University. "The goal that you have is to find out something true about the world, regardless of what your preferred hypothesis might be. Your real drive is to find what is revealed by the data. This is absolutely essential in being a scientist."
Admitting to not being curious is far more rare in surveys, however, so that is not telling much. If you fake data, that person is not really a scientist in the true sense, Pennock added, which means those who engage in p-hacking (massaging statistics to get an arbitrary significance, like p=.05, or HARKing (Hypothesizing After the Results are Known) are not real scientists, eliminating giant swaths of papers in publications like PNAS, a publication by a membership group from which some of the participants of the survey were drawn.
Those surveyed, using a scale from zero to ten, were asked to rate attentiveness, collaborative, courage, curiosity, honesty, humility to evidence, meticulousness, objectivity, perseverance and skepticism with regard to their importance for scientific research.
Once they scored each trait, the scientists were asked how each characteristic is or isn't expressed in science. The subjects also were asked to identify the three most-important virtues.
The surveys evoked belief in a tacit moral code in scientific culture - one that most researchers hope to be able to pass on to their students. Underscoring the importance of instilling desirable traits in the next generation of scientists, the study tackled how exemplary scientists preserve and transmit these values to their students.
A whopping 94 percent of scientists believe scientific values and virtues can be learned. The number dropped a bit, though, when asked if these traits are actually being transmitted to current graduate students.
"It's encouraging that 4 out of 5 scientists believe that their values are being embraced by the next generation of students," Pennock said. "However, it's somewhat troubling that 22 percent of the scientists surveyed see these valued traits eroding a bit."
With stories of falsified results making headlines, it's known that some scientists not only fail to achieve these ideals but directly violate them. Has that become more common? It's hard to know. It may be that like self-selection bias and politicization of science, insiders may not wish to see it.