Science Backstage: Episode 1

Episode 1: From wanting to become an astronaut to my identity crisis

Since I was 5 years old I only had one goal: becoming an astronaut and discover the mysteries of the universe. I read everything on the universe I could get my hands on, had space-related computer games and documentaries. Knowing that we humans are inhabitants of a tiny planet, on the outer skirts of a galaxy, which itself is part of a bigger galaxy cluster and there is so much out there we don’t know was the most fascinating there can be for me for a long time.

At the age of 19, I decided to distance myself from my goal to become an astronaut as I had learned that to reach that goal it would be better to study engineering, medicine or even to become a pilot. Instead I decided to study astronomy and I had high expectations on my studies. I expected the content to be super interesting, the teaching to be excellent and a cooperative scientific community like we learn about it in school and movies.

I got utterly disappointed. During my Bachelor I got so bored during the lectures that I either fell asleep or played Nintendo DS to avoid falling asleep. It wasn’t boring because the matter was easy, in fact, it was hard. No, it was boring because of the way it was taught. When I learned then that professors need to teach certain hours and yet they do not get rewarded for their teaching, but mainly for their scientific output, I understood why they put so little effort into preparing their lectures. Instead of using state-of-the-art technology to show us simulations of the processes we learned, we got shown 20-year-old slides that were hardly readable. It was tiring. 

Me playing Nintendo DS during Physics class
<Click image to enlarge>

Even more tiring was reading scientific papers, which are considered *the* research output. I simply hardly understood anything of the papers we had to read. Since they were in English I thought, maybe it’s a language problem. However, when I spent a semester abroad in Australia during the last year of my Bachelor, my Australian colleague told me he had the same problem. Papers are written in an outdated linear way, instead of using state-of-the-art technology, where text can be interlinked, expanded and programming code can be integrated. A lot of steps are left out, such as calculations, which makes the science behind the paper hardly replicable and the language used is utterly dry to convey the impression to be “objective”. As fascinating as the content may be, the style how papers are written makes them the perfect sleeping pill.

The worst experience during my studies, however, was the realisation that science is not at all how we learn it in school and from movies. We get taught the “enchanted view” of science, that science represents an ideal community, a group of people sharing knowledge to reach the higher goal of producing new knowledge for the sole sake of curiosity. Because I was raised as a perfectionist and an idealist, it was natural for me to believe in the enchanted view and I naively believed that science is intrinsically objective, cooperative and that it involves universal sharing of data and outputs.

Frankly, I had to learn during my studies that this is not how the scientific world works and during the last year of my Master that realisation hit me really badly. The reality of science is described best under the famous idiom “publish or perish”. A researcher is assessed through the number of papers they publish, the number of citations those papers get, how many grants they can acquire to fund their research and a couple of other so-called “metrics”. Those numbers are important if one wants to climb the career ladder, which is necessary to remain a researcher. The problem with this assessment system is that a “discovery cannot be ordered like a pizza”*. Research is the endeavour to find the unknown and is, hence, risky by nature. The consequences of this system involve bad teaching, badly-written and non-reproducible papers, an information overload due to outdated papers and sometimes even fraud.

People in academia rarely talk about the real conditions in science, so at first I started questioning myself – maybe I am just too stupid for the system, I thought. I got very disillusioned and didn’t know anymore what my values should be and what I want to do in life. Who was I if not the girl who wanted to become an astronomer all her life? Continuing to play along the “publish or perish” game wasn’t an option for me, as I would have felt I was selling my soul to the devil.

To my relieve, during the last few months of my Master I got to know that I am not the only scientist that believes that there is something fundamentally going wrong in research.

Who those scientists are and what happened next in my story of questioning science will be released in the next episode of this series Science Backstage.

*This is a quote from an astronomer I interviewed for my research at the CWTS (Leiden, The Netherlands) in 2017, which I will talk about in later episodes of this series.

Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 21st June 2022

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