Why Scientists Do Science: A Trek For Answers

Author:  De Michele Jennifer
Institution:  Natural Resources
Date:  July 2002


With scissors and a magnifying glass in my hand, I often dashed outside to my family's pool filters and emptied them, hoping to find a dead frog or mouse. On lucky days, I would head over to my outside lab bench - a large, granite, stone slab - and attempt a seven-year-old's dissection of the waterlogged creature.



At that point in my life, I wanted to be scientist - to wear a white lab coat, use microscopes, and have a lab filled with smoking beakers, bubbling test tubes, and specimens in jars. I wanted to discover things about the world that were not yet known and understand why things were the way that they were.

Scientists found cures for diseases, created new compounds from old compounds, and invented things to made life easier. Scientists - intelligent and prestigious - discovered things that nobody else could.

Unfortunately, at seven, I had a romanticized perception of what scientists were and what they did. In the words of New York University professor Dorothy Nelkin, in her book Selling Science, I had made scientists "stars," and had "socially removed [them] above most normal human preoccupations." I had conjured up images of scientists as these super-human, omniscient, objective, truth seekers.

The Mission

Later, no longer as gullible and easily swayed by media images of scientists, I decided to investigate the real reasons why scientists do science and gain insights into some of science's joys and frustrations. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, one of the largest research institutions in the country, I interviewed a variety of Cornell scientists, from ecologists to plant geneticists.



I wanted to talk to the human face behind science, an endeavor Nelkin describes as being "idealized as an esoteric activity, a separate culture, a profession apart from and above other human endeavors."

Are scientists really omniscient, super-human persons wearing white lab coats, locked up in windowless labs with microscopes, electrophoresis gels, and other hi-tech equipment? To the disappointment of my seven-year-old self, the answer was no.

Of the scientists I interviewed, not one wore a white lab coat, sunlight brightened most of their offices, and many of them had family pictures displayed on their desks and walls. Their offices may have been littered with scientific texts, and a couple of the offices did have a microscope or two tucked away on shelves, but, for the most part, the offices I visited could have belonged to English or classics professors.

Consequently, when I started asking these scientists why they had chosen science, the answers were not indecipherable or complex, but instead logical extensions of each scientist's goals. Some scientists were on their own missions, trying to discover new knowledge that would help solve environmental or agricultural problems, while others were extending hobbies or personal interests.

Science had attracted these people for a myriad of reasons, but the one thing all had in common was that they believed passionately in what they do.

Insights from Peter Davies, plant physiology and plant molecular biology

When I walked into Peter Davies' office, a textbook with a yellow flower on its front cover lay on the coffee table, and the room, like the hallway, smelled like damp potting soil. Professor Davies, who sat at his computer, did not wear a white lab coat, and although his office was filled with numerous books and academic journals, no bubbling beakers or test tubes sat on his shelves.

For Davies, two factors led him to pursue a career in science - his love for gardening and inspiration from his high school botany teachers. Before he was introduced to science, planting seeds and watching them grow was just a hobby. He knew nothing about the specific mechanisms that allowed some plants to grow and others to perish. Gardening was a matter of luck.

However, when Davies' teachers inspired him to pursue science, his gardening luck was soon replaced with a higher degree of certainty. Using science and the scientific method, Davies was able to study the structure of plants and "how" and "why" they functioned, and accordingly, he became a better gardener.

Over the years, Davies' research has expanded. It now involves examining lines of plants and how their genes control aspects of plant development; and even though time has passed, Davies finds that to discover "how" and "why" things function continues to challenge and satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

Davies: "Only 1% of the science you conduct actually provides new information, and it is this new information that gives you the excitement to continue." Source: Cornell University, Department of Plant Biology

Davies: "Only 1% of the science you conduct actually provides new information, and it is this new information that gives you the excitement to continue." Source: Cornell University, Department of Plant Biology

But he warns that discoveries do not come every day, like people read in the newspaper. Science takes dedication and patience. "It is 99% drudgery. Doing things again and again.," he says. "Only 1% of the science you conduct actually provides new information, and it is this new information that gives you the excitement to continue."

The scientific method may be slow, but Davies recognizes and accepts that the method's mechanistic procedures are necessary to maintain science's validity and long-term objectivity.

What Davies fails to accept is the time and energy that scientists have to spend to secure funding. To find funding, scientists often have to put their research on hold and take time to become part-time writers and entrepreneurs. Right now, if scientists are not in one of the "hot" areas of science such as genomics or proteomics, funding is hard to come by, he says.

Davies, who would, if he could, spend the entire year conducting research and teaching, spends at least six months out of the year writing grants. Referring to grant reviewers as referees, Davies explains that the only way to maneuver yourself successfully through this funding game is to "make sure that you lay out every nuance of the research project and show that you have read every paper of importance in the field."

Not only does the 15-page grant proposal detract from the time Davies could be spending conducting research, but the competition has become so high that writing a grant proposal no longer even guarantees him money to continue with his research endeavors.

But Davies reminds me that competition for money or prestige is not just found in science, but is embedded in any human endeavor. It is human nature to want to race to the top. "There are scientists who care about their colleagues and students, and there are those that don't," he says. Fortunately, for Davies, who never entered into science for the salary, lack of funding can be discouraging, but it does not dampen his passion for scientific discovery.

What does worry him, and his colleagues, is the way science is taught in schools. Students are asked to come up with hypotheses without even knowing anything about the system on which they are doing the experiment, he says. In addition, "a lot of the populous is amazingly ignorant of science. Too many students leave high school without really understanding what science is, and this worries me."

Unlike Davies' botany teachers, who inspired him to pursue science, Davies feels that many of today's high school and elementary teachers are intimidated by science and are poorly qualified to teach it. Consequently, students get out of high school thinking that science is too difficult, when science is really just a matter of inquiring and gathering facts about how the world works around us, Davies says.

Although discouraged about the United States' funding and educational system, Davies continues his scientific pursuits. Each day, Davies feels like a detective, and on those days when he has gathered enough "clues" so that everything fits together, the satisfaction he receives hardly differs in magnitude from when he conducted his first experiment. "The more that I discover, the more amazed I am about the breadth and depth of the biological sciences. Today, we know more and more and about less and less. Luckily, Cornell has enough employed and visiting scientists to enable you to complete the whole picture."

Insights from Barbara Bedford, applied wetland ecology

Bedford: "Science is elegant." Source: Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources

Bedford: "Science is elegant." Source: Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources

After passing through a hallway with displays of stuffed birds, and walking down a flight of stairs, I came to a door decorated with a map of a computerized landscape. Answering my knock was Barbara Bedford, a senior research associate in applied wetland ecology. Her office was tiny, narrow, and meticulously kept, and when she offered me a seat on the couch underneath the window, I felt like I had just stepped into someone's family room.

Pulling out my tape recorder, I soon found out Bedford never thought she would become a scientist. Receiving her undergraduate degrees in theology and philosophy with minors in psychology and anthropology, she considered herself very humanities-oriented. But during a weekend class titled Reading the Landscape, a University of Wisconsin professor inspired her to pursue a career in wetland ecology and management.

For the first time in Bedford's life, a professor had taken her head, which was turned inward toward the examination of human constructs, and had forced her to look outside herself. Before the landscape class, Bedford had never really "seen" the landscape. She had walked through it, driven over it, and had even flown over it, yet she never asked why certain landscapes have patterns that they do, or how humans disrupt those patterns.

Consequently, Bedford found that science and the scientific method were just the tools she needed to help her decipher the complexity embedded in the earth's landscapes. "Science," she says almost in awe, "is elegant. It has the ability to get the noise and mess out of the picture so that the picture emerges cleanly and clearly."

Bedford, who gets excited down to her core if she spends long periods of time in a natural environment, believes that human beings have a responsibility to make sure that the natural world continues to exist for future generations. Accordingly, Bedford has an idealistic notion that the understanding we acquire through science, unlike anecdotes, can allow people to make better decisions about how they use or do not use the environment.

Bedford, whose own life was so profoundly turned around by nature, is on her own mission: to help see that nature is always there. Using science, Bedford hopes to determine what controls plant species' diversity in wetlands and how human activities are altering that diversity.

Bedford has a strong faith in science because of its repeatability, but she is not blind to the fact that science is conducted by human beings, who are subject to influence by their cultures. "We are all influenced by the social, political, economical context in which we exist, and while the methods of science may allow us to eliminate subjectivity in the way we go about answering questions," she says, "the questions that we ask are highly colored by this cultural context in which we find ourselves."

Consequently, Bedford promotes among her graduate and undergraduate research assistants the notion of a "community of scholars." Such a notion advocates that students help, work, and constructively criticize each other, but more importantly, it reminds students that being decent human beings comes before doing whatever needs to get done.

With upholding this notion in her lab, Bedford hopes to relieve any pressure that a student may have to cheat or manipulate data. "Honesty is just such a basic ethical principle in science that one is horrified at people who are not honest about what they know," she says.

Fortunately for her, science has an infinitely steep learning curve. Bedford is only happy when she is learning, yet even happier when she is learning together with people. Sometimes the competition in science can inhibit the flow of new ideas, methods and procedures among people, and consequently, Bedford, would like to see science be more cooperative and less competitive.

"In academia, the emphasis seems to be on who is getting the biggest grants, publishing in the best journals, receiving the brightest graduate students. This certainly promotes attracting really good people into the field," Bedford says, "but such an emphasis works against those people who are not inherently highly competitive• I often ask myself if that is why there are not more women in science."

At the end of the day, Bedford may be a scientist on a mission, but not a mission that is esoteric or apart from other human endeavors. Ironically, science is not the main thing that gets Bedford out of bed in the morning. "I cannot help but be honest about the importance of my husband and daughter. They really are the ultimate joys of my life."


Insights from Barbara Peckarsky, entomologist and stream ecologist

On my way to Barbara Peckarsky's office, my curiosity forced me to stop and view part of Cornell's insect collection on display in Comstock Hall. Entomologists had pinned down and labeled beetles of all colors and sizes. Although Peckarsky specializes in the behavior, population, and community ecology of stream insects, these beetle displays put me in the right mindset before I stepped into her office.

Peckarsky, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, sat at her cluttered desk. Behind her desk was a bulletin board with the largest collage of family photographs I had ever seen, and hung up all around her office were pictures of insects and other stream organisms.

Photo courtsey Maclean/Oxford Scientific Films

Photo courtsey Maclean/Oxford Scientific Films

Although Peckarsky does have her own lab with microscope-filled cabinets, during the school year most of her time is spent in her office or outside collecting data with her students. And in the summer, Peckarsky heads out to Colorado to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab to conduct research and "play in water."

For Peckarsky, teaching, rather than scientific research, was always her first love. Before she even "stumbled" into scientific research, she was a high school biology teacher for four years. As she puts it, "I started as a teacher, and I will end a teacher."

Like Davies and Bedford, watching a student grasp a concept or create his or her own experiment is not only satisfying, but it also helps Peckarsky fulfill what she believes is one of her obligations as a scientist.

Despite my misconception that scientists remain behind locked doors, secretly working on the next big discovery, Peckarsky looked me straight in the eyes and told me, "Science in a vacuum is silly."

According to Peckarsky, if one chooses to do science as a profession, the most important part is communication. Otherwise, you reinvent the wheel. Whether publishing a paper or lecturing students about your research, communication, not secrecy, is what allows scientific fields to advance and areas of inquiry to move forward, she says.

Peckarsky, who has devoted almost 25 years to studying stream invertebrates and ecology, considers her research to be very basic. Unlike Bedford's or Kresovich's research, which has direct applications to solving real-life problems, Peckarsky's research, like Davies', helps demystify a certain aspect of nature without any immediate societal benefits.

Peckarsky strongly disagrees with those people who argue that science which is not applied is irresponsible. "How do you even do applied research without the basic knowledge of how a system works?" she asks. Peckarsky's devotion to studying stream ecosystems has allowed her to ask questions that would not have been possible if she had to change her research focus to become more application-oriented.

Presently, Peckarsky worries that the inequitable allocation of government funds between ecology and genetics could be detrimental for those scientists that ask "skin-out" questions rather than "skin-in" questions. She objects to anybody who says, "If you are not doing genomics, you are doing something boring and arcane." "Both areas of inquiry are essential for scientific advancement," she asserts.

Peckarsky, who has had the satisfaction of seeing her research evolve and expand over the years, cannot help but feel lucky. She has always received adequate funding and has published numerous articles. Yet, for Peckarsky, teaching, not her scientific research, continues to be more gratifying.

Although her research helps her shape her curriculum, Peckarsky believes that more "inroads" can be made in teaching than in solely conducting research. Lecturing about the results of her research not only allows Peckarsky to be more critical of her research, but also allows her to create a more informed society. For Peckarsky, research is a means to an end. "Research helps me be a better teacher, not the other way around."

Insights from Stephen Kresovich, plant genomics and agricultural conservation

Peckarsky at play: "Science in a vacuum is silly." Source: Cornell University, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Peckarsky at play: "Science in a vacuum is silly." Source: Cornell University, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

When I walked toward Cornell's biotechnology building, one of the largest and newest research buildings on campus, I knew Stephen Kresovich, the director for the Institute for Genomic Diversity, would help me gain insight into the changes occurring in the way 21st century scientists conduct science.

Upon reaching the biotechnology office, an administrator greeted me, asked me if she could take my coat, and led me into spacious office that was almost bare, except for a couch, a desk, and a poster of the human genome. Seconds later, Kresovich walked into the room.

Raised in Pittsburgh, Kresovich claimed all the city had to offer was steel mills, no biology. Accordingly, Kresovich's interest in science did not start until he reached college. In college, he became fascinated with the process of photosynthesis. "Any living entity that could produce its own food was worth investigating," he said.

However, not until Kresovich read Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (hallmark books of the 1970s environmental movement), did he solidify his interests in pursuing a career that interfaced plant science and environmental problems.

For Kresovich, unlike Davies, the quest for mere knowledge about how and why nature works and functions was not enough of an incentive for him to pursue a career in science. "Knowledge per se was not good enough for me. Currently, I am not just at Cornell to generate new insights," he says. "I want to generate information and work with people that are trying to solve problems."

Kresovich, who stands at the forefront of scientific advancement, recognizes that as science moves ahead, interdisciplinary work can no longer be the exception, but needs to become the norm. The needs and challenges are so complicated that the better scientists, economists and computer programmers are able to work in a team setting, the better off science will be, he says.

Yet, one of Kresovich's main concerns as interdisciplinary teams grow bigger, is the gap that has started to grow between the student and the "Nobel prize winner." Scientists conducting research are becoming more integrated, but students who are the next generation's researchers are getting left out of the loop, he says.

Since Kresovich's route into science, like Davies' and Bedford's, was largely the result of the inspiration he received from professors, this chasm between students and researches could be problematic for the future of science. "Whether you are a student or a well-known scientist, you should be able to work together and benefit from that partnership. Today, researchers face too much pressure to go full speed ahead, and a disconnect is occurring between researchers and education," he says.

Kresovich, like Bedford, who feels that the role of science is to act as a tool to solve society's problems, recognizes that society needs to be better informed about the benefits of science. Working for Cornell's Agricultural and Life Sciences School (CALS), which is publicly funded, Kresovich defines himself as a public servant.

At the end of the day, month, and year, Kresovich's impact on an issue is what is important. Does he conduct research for money's sake? No; Kresovich does not think any scientist does. Although some people are more motivated by competition and acknowledgment, time, for him, is more important than money. "You have to keep asking yourself, are you doing something that you want to be doing?"


At seven, waterlogged creature in hand, I had romanticized scientists. At 22, notebook and tape recorder in hand, I romanticized my mission. Despite acknowledging Nelkin's description of science as an "idealized esoteric activity, separate culture, a profession apart from and above other human endeavors," deep down, each time I stepped into the office of a scientist, I still expected to hear awe-inspiring and earth-shattering accounts of why scientists do science.

But in the end, after talking with Davies, Bedford, Peckarsky, Kresovich, and others, I have begun to finally accept that scientists really are human, and their pursuits are just as honorable as the endeavors of a non-scientist.

Scientists may be more curious about how things function, or more determined to use science as a tool to solve problems than the average person, but in doing "science," scientists must deal with the similar frustrations and joys that occur in all human occupations. Neither Davies, Bedford, Peckarsky, nor Kresovich escapes having to manage monetary constraints; nor do any of them escape the effects that human nature's competitiveness and partiality can cause in the work place.

In addition, in finally talking to the human face behind science, I have realized that science, or the practice of science, is not an esoteric activity, but rather an activity of which all people are capable. As Thomas Gavin, a Cornell associate professor in applied ecology, states, "If you study anything according to the scientific method, it is science by definition. Science is not as nearly mysterious as most non-scientists think it is. Really, it is just a way of asking questions."