An In Depth Analysis of the Trials & Tribulations of the Questioning Scientist

Note: This is a repost of an older version, meant to be a very interactive article, with more questions than answers. I will ask you for feedback and policy suggestions as we delve deeper into these complex issues. If you have an idea, please comment!

Introduction: From the dawn of human consciousness came the need to identify and document knowledge, presumably as a means to enhance the survival of a species. To tell a story of one’s findings is a gift from past to future generations. The evolution of writing allowed humans to record observations with much greater detail than with memory or oral language, but it also made possible for younger generations to look back and question the findings of their elders. While written language first appeared in Mesopotamia 3500-3000 BCE, depicting the everyday lives of the writers, it was not until the Era of Ancient Philosophy 500-300BCE when processes to seek truths of nature began to materialize. During this time, Plato and Aristotle stressed the importance of observation and reasoning, respectively. Together, they laid the philosophical foundation for documentation and refinement of knowledge that was later built upon by Ibn Al-Haytham of Egypt, one of the first theoretical physicists, who wrote:

“The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” – Ibn Al-Haytham Book of Optics (11th century)

… which resonated ~600 years later with renowned philosopher and scientist René Descartes, during the Scientific Revolution.

“In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display order.” – René Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule #10 (1701).

These are just a few of the greatest scientific philosophers whose work, passed down across centuries, cumulates into what we know today as the Scientific Method – a systematic way to link observation with reasoning. These ways of critical questioning, methodical reasoning and the transfer of information through mentorship have become hallmarks of academia.

As with any social institutions, ideologies and demographics evolve with time. How do common practices in modern academia bolster or undermine the original philosophy of science? I hypothesize that the institution of academia and the original goal of science have become marred with groups of powerful individuals who behave inappropriately and perpetuate an environment that is both unfriendly to students and detrimental to scientific inquiry. Of course, science has always had a tumultuous past, for example during the time of Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. The real-life evidence I will provide is from and to be analyzed within the context of modern academia, where competition is fierce, productivity is key, and researchers often find themselves stressed for money, deadlines, and results. The need to publish, sometimes at the expense of scientific integrity, is apparent in the increasing number of retracted papers for fraud and error in the past few decades. Furthermore, undertones of classism, elitism, hierarchism, and sexism – inherent to an upbringing in a patriarchal society –Are further exacerbated by the well-intended nature, but often-abused perks of tenure.

Evidence #1 (Definitely older, supposedly wiser.): NIH statistics show that of all principal investigators (PIs) funded by R01s, there is an increasing number of total awards going to those over the age of retirement (66) with a decreasing number of total awards going to those under the age of 35. The age discrepancy has two contributing factors: 1) tenured faculties are delaying retirement and 2) universities are decreasing the availability of tenure track positions to increase non-tenure track and part-time positions open to the younger, job-seeking population.

A majority of all R01 funded PIs are white, and majority of tenure track faculties are male. Fewer women than men apply for R01s, though first-time success rate between sexes is not significantly different. Longitudinal studies show men are more likely than women to get subsequent grants. The reasons behind these gender and race discrepancies for the prestigious and unparalleled R01 have been debated. While it is true that faculty outside of the old, white, male demographic – such as young faculty, underrepresented minorities, and women – have exclusive access to other funding opportunities, it is unlikely this is the sole explanation. A quick scroll through any university’s faculty page will yield a majority of… you guessed it… old, white men.

So why is this bad? To bring Evidence #1 back to my hypothesis, all I have to say is that while there is much to be respected in experienced scientists, a lack of diversity means a lack of new ideas and creativity. Furthermore, how can we expect that science will truly advance society’s needs if the demographic of those in science does not match the demographic of those in need? Just like in politics, we need representatives who are truly representative of the general population. You very well should know that an answer only leads to more questions. My questions for you now, dear reader, are: How do you think the pace and quality of scientific discoveries would be affected if more funding were given to more diverse faculty at the expense of funding for the majority demographic? What do you think are some reasons why fewer women apply for R01s? Why do you think fewer women receive grant renewals? Why do you think there are fewer women in academia? How do you think we can change this? Do you think current policies are effective? Why? Why not?

Evidence #2 (With great power, comes great responsibility.) Not surprisingly, the demographic of administrative and executive positions reflect that of the general academic population. While there may be a few token minority individuals who are eager to help ‘even out’ the playing field by sitting on these committees, their voice remains unheard when majority votes are used, and their research productivity often takes a hit when committee duty calls.

A recent example of discrimination that has caught media attention involves the reputable Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which has a total of 33 tenured faculties. 28 of these are male and 5 are female, 3 of which filed gender discrimination lawsuits claiming they have been consistently barred from the same internal funding opportunities as their male, ‘equal’ counterparts. The last of the lawsuits occurred in July of 2017, but this is not a new event. Salk has a history of recruiting male faculty; between 2000-2003, 7/9 men accepted assistant professor positions at Salk, while 0/5 women accepted. These longstanding gender recruitment and funding distribution differences, highlighted by the recent lawsuits, indicate the presence of a systemic issue that has yet to be addressed publically until now.

“Salk has allowed an ‘old boys club’ culture to dominate, creating a hostile work environment for the Salk tenured women professors.” – Prof. Vicki Lundblad

Understandably, the formation of friend groups among like-minded individuals is inevitable, but in a system where “who knows who” is important and networking is a must, minorities who cannot connect are left at a disadvantage. Anyone with a keen eye in academia will see that sexism is not unusual and can occur through multiple venues.

“I didn’t feel comfortable networking at social events at conferences, because it was always a bunch of old white men drinking and then inviting people to their hotel rooms. I would always go with a buddy and leave early, just in case, even though I knew I was missing out on an opportunity to make connections.” – Prof. Young Minority Female

To bring Evidence #2 back to my hypothesis, it is clear that there are individuals in academia who are given, but do not fulfill, responsibilities to ensure equality. My questions for you: How then do we combat these systemic issues? How do we break the ‘old boys club’ when those who are given the responsibility of combating discrimination behave irresponsibly? Personally, I believe the club is hard to be broken from the outside in. Leadership must set an example by actively pursuing a sense of community that is all-inclusive. Otherwise, the formation of ‘old women’s club’ and ‘minorities club’ will be inevitable. Do you agree or disagree?

Interlude: These first two pieces of evidence focus more on the faculty side of things. Next two are more student-focused. *Take a break and comment with your thoughts so far!*

Evidence #3 (Subtle discrimination toward the powerless.): There are certain actions that merit lawsuits. For example, a professor touches you inappropriately or sends you an email with overtly racist comments. These events should first be reported to the appropriate administrators, and not to personal lawyers, so that the case is the university against a professor – not just you against a professor. (Hopefully, your administrator is a responsible employee and goes through the correct channels to report the incident, instead of trying to hide it under the table. If this happens, go tell the next person up in the chain of command.)

Usually, discrimination is not so overtly black & white, resulting in little to no consequences for faculty, especially those who are tenured. I’ve met old, white male faculty who are the most caring and cognizant of minority struggles, and I’ve met some who aren’t, from whom the majority of stories regarding students being manipulated, threatened, and abused come – though not exclusively. I’ve seen younger female faculty act the exact same way, and I can only presume this is because they were raised in an academic environment in which the abusive type of mentorship had been normalized… and so, the cycle continues – the abused become the abuser (a common psychological phenomenon applied to victims of domestic, childhood, or sexual abuse). When a parent lashes out in anger, a child learns by example that lashing out is the way to handle feelings of anger. In academia, this means that when a mentor holds a certain mentality (such as a stereotype, a method of conflict management, or a way of treating people from different backgrounds), the mentee is likely to adopt that same mentality. For example, there is a common stereotype of Asian lab technicians working for the lowest pay in sweatshop conditions, and being threatened to get fired and sent back to Asia if they fell out of line… this is reality.

“The Asians work the hardest.” – Prof. Old White Man

“International students cost too much. I only take those with super high productivity and who don’t ask questions.” – Prof. Old White Man

“(to international employee) If (other employee) doesn’t get the method working, your job is on the line.” – Prof. Old White Man

Sometimes, discrimination might be visible through behavior, but evasive language and the absence of concrete proof makes this type of conduct particularly difficult to reprimand by administrators. Ultimately, those being abused might have no way to speak up, aside from making the decision to leave a lab. I have heard of entire labs leaving an abusive mentor... but here’s another story:

There is this couple with a child in my lab. The woman works the earlier part of the day, and the man works the later part so they can take turns for childcare. It appears that the man gets to spend more time in lab, because he doesn’t have as much of the childcare duties as the women. However, the woman works much harder when she is at the lab, while the man just sits there with low productivity. Somehow, the PI looks more favorably at the man, while often making microaggressive remarks at the woman. Regardless of the relative quality of her data, the efficiency of her work, and the productivity of her hours, it is the absolute hours in lab that the PI cares about. The PI’s judgment of the situation is biased, based only on attendance, overlooks all other facts, and takes things out of context. – Minority graduate student

To bring Evidence #3 back to my hypothesis, when powerful individuals behave inappropriately without backlash, but get the results that they want (such as students working longer hours or even forging data to avoid getting fired), the inappropriate behavior is reinforced. When this happens, the environment in which the student is raised becomes toxic. Now my questions for you are: Do you think the above story would also be true if the professor were a female? Have you ever experienced an incidence where there might have been a subtle undertone of discrimination, but didn’t know how to address the situation? If you could go back, what would you have done differently? What advice can you share with others undergoing the same type of treatment? Please share (anonymously if you must).  

Evidence #4 (The little girl’s conundrum.): Ancient scientists, or petitor veritatis (latin for “a seeker of truth”), shared a goal and responsibility first and foremost to finding concrete truths about the universe. Perhaps my view of academia is a little archaic, reminiscent of the time of Al-Haythem and Descartes when the original philosophy of science is to always ask why, to challenge the status quo, and to look beyond the surface. If genuine questioning forms the basis of science, then one should expect a mentor-mentee interaction to exhibit a questioner with no shame (if their purpose is truly to learn) and an answerer with no ego (if their purpose is truly to educate). Those that follow this type of teaching philosophy tend to be great mentors, because they promote discussion and critical thinking, which nurtures mutual respect.

Then there are mentors who have become accustomed to student adoration and the niceties of ass-kissing, without which they will feel disrespected. As an undergraduate in a major that was predominantly on the premedical track, I found it shocking how often students felt like they had to “brown nose” to get a good recommendation letter.

“Go to the professor’s office, stroke some ego, wear something cute, and get a good recommendation letter.” – A friend with good intentions

Upon questioning, these professors reacted by assuming that I was a bad student (ahem… I was an A student.) and reaffirming their superior status, instead of just answering the question.

“Why don’t you listen to others? Do you think you’re smarter than everyone else? You’re not a PhD or MD. You’re not a PI. Keep your head down and do what others tell you.” – Prof. Old White Man

If the respect of an individual is so easily won by the superficial, then are they worth your respect to start with?

To bring Evidence #4 back to my hypothesis, the integrity of science is at stake because the historical process of learning through mentorship is at odds with the modern approach of succeeding through building superficial relationships. Unfortunately, there are many professors who positively reinforce behaviors such as ass-kissing to get a good recommendation letter and negatively reinforce behaviors such as questioning for scientific integrity. If those in higher positions create an environment, such that the constituents of academia succumb to ‘playing the game’ as opposed to ‘playing by the rules,’ then how can one truly succeed in science, while also acting on principle? We would like to think that to be the best in science, doing the best science is all that matters… but in modern academia this is far from the truth. Even peer reviewing, a system set up for checks and balances, when not double-blinded is tainted with the inevitable human factor. How does one reconcile the human in you who wants to reject the grant proposal of your competitor with the scientist in you who sees the strength of the experiments proposed?

Discussion: Perhaps there are no right answers to the questions I have posed, but there are definitely goals of equality and integrity that we should aspire towards. I’ve only provided a handful of examples pertaining to my hypothesis, and I’m sure you will see, hear, and experience more during your time in academia. As a female in STEM, I have been called a “young lady” and a “big girl,” sometimes endearingly… sometimes condescendingly… who knows? But THAT’s the problem. Context is important for the subjective interpretation of undertone and connotation.

“Maybe she’s just more sensitive than the others…” – Prof. Old White Man.

The story of those being oppressed will always differ from that of the oppressor, who might say that the rise of feminism has ‘sensitized’ women to wrongly assume the presence of sexism in gender-neutral situations. For example, “mentoring” could be misinterpreted as “mansplaining.” Subjective interpretations aside, one cannot deny that events occurring with high frequency over time objectively suggest the presence of a systemic issue. What IS consistent across every single context is the fact that I was outranked, by age and sex and degree. So, when I felt mistreated and told people who adopted the hierarchal way of thinking, I found myself victim-blamed. People would make excuses for my abusive superiors and find fault in me. I did the same. I mean after all, I must be wrong because I am inferior, right?

Conclusion: The way minorities, women, and students are often treated by their older colleagues is a reflection of the fundamental inequalities in our society. This treatment suggests that people need to change themselves, assimilate, or ‘be normal’ in order to earn the respect of others. I was told to change my behavior, but it takes two for communication to go awry. And let’s face it… a behavior change from my end will not have as large of an impact as a behavior change from a superior. It’s clear, in science, politics, society… that inequality is hard to fight from the bottom up, but can be easily fixed from the top down, via the actions of administrators and legislation. Let me tell you… inequality will happen to you if you’re an underrepresented minority. When it happens, know that the feelings you have are justified, because somebody with more power just wronged you. You will feel disrespected, but probably not say anything. You will question yourself and find fault within because others wrongly found fault in you.

Future Directions: What then can we – those of us who are not administrators, not PIs, not Deans, not directors – do? All ‘responsible employees’ at a university are required to report incidences of sexual and physical harassment, regardless of your consent. These incidences include things like ass-grabbing, sexting, racist & derogatory comments, threats of or actions resulting in physical harm, and likewise. If you are sure you want to lawyer-up, then file a complaint with an administrator. Publically admonish the bad behavior by facing your attacker and calling them out for what they are. If you are unsure of what to do, then there are two classes of individuals at a university you can speak to without repercussions – your physician and therapists from the university’s counseling and psychological services – both bound by patient confidentiality. Speaking to these professionals will offer many advantages, from emotional support to conflict management tips to help with determining the extent of legal versus daily work abuse.

Occasionally, you’ll find that there is no solution to a bad situation. Perhaps then, the best one can do is to walk away, which I want to emphasize is not the same as giving up. Walking away is recognizing that there are things you can’t change, and that is not your fault. By walking away, you are acknowledging that a particular surrounding is hazardous, so you are retaking control of yourself and your path. Never regret holding yourself to a higher standard of conduct where integrity and honesty rank above appearance and reputation. If somebody wronged you, do right by someone else. Don’t give up and become an abuser yourself. Break the cycle, because if we continue to allow such a toxic environment – where who you know is more important than what you know, where being smart and confident beyond your title is seen as insubordination, where authority is not to be questioned – science takes a hit. If your macro environment is filled with microaggressions, it is time for a scene change. You deserve the best.

“One should not take a change in path as a failure in the other path.” – Prof. Minority of Caring Old White Men.


Author Bio - Jessica Chen

Jess holds a BS in biomedical engineering from the University of Southern California and is currently working toward her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. She is researching the design of an implant and gene therapy to treat spinal cord injury and paralysis. She is an NSF GRFP scholar with a passion for science communication. As a hardcore nerd, she lives and breathes science and is always up for a good debate. Follow her on Twitter @BluntDrChen