Science Backstage: Episode 2

Episode 2: My discovery of the “Meta Sciences”

In Episode 1, I told the story of how I found myself in the middle of an identity crisis at the end of my Master, in the summer semester of 2015. For the first time since I was 5 years old, I didn’t know who I was and who I wanted to be. In sight of the “publish or perish” system in academia, I abandoned my dream and my goal to work in astronomy as a scientific researcher.

Thankfully, during that last semester I followed a course called “Science and the Public”. This course gave an overview of how new knowledge is produced and communicated to the public. It included aspects about the relationship between science and the public, such as the kind of information not published and how scientists portray themselves in public. All students had to present a paper on the topic and I chose Science in Transition – a decision that was about to change my life.

Science in Transition is a Dutch initiative of university professors striving for a fundamental reform of science. With their position paper, they identified various problems with how science is currently done and introduced some ideas for improvements. These problems are what the initiators called the “shades of grey”.

This inspired my essay “50 shades of screwed up research“ that I wrote at the end of the course. I recently made it to the winner’s podium with my contribution to a blog competition where I summarised my story in science and the main points of the essay – for those of you who can read German.
(If you don’t want to read so many pages, I summarised some of the main points of Science in Transition and my essay in the following episodes 2.1 & 2.2.)

My professor of the Science and the Public course was really impressed by my presentation so we chatted after the lecture. He told me that there is an institute researching research down the road from the astronomy institute in Leiden. It’s called the CWTS (Centre for Science and Technology Studies). He told me that Science (& Technology) Studies (“Wissenschaftsforschung” in German) is a sub-field of the social sciences, which researches how research is performed and knowledge is produced. Some people call it “meta science“.

“Meta science – that sounds like made for me” is what I immediately thought, since I have a (sometimes bad) habit of always questioning and optimizing everything, even science. For the first time after my months-long identity crisis, I saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel … A new hope … I had a new mission: working for the CWTS.

I first wrote to a Postdoc (the position of a researcher after obtaining a doctorate, or PhD), who never replied. Next I wrote to the then director, Paul Wouters, who kindly replied but was understandably too busy during the summer to follow up with me.

After graduating at the end of July, I didn’t know whether I should stay in the Netherlands or move back to Austria anymore. I preferred going back to Austria, but there were 2 reasons for which I would have stayed. My Dutch boyfriend and/ or getting a job at CWTS. The former relationship didn’t work out.

At the end of August, on the morning after my graduation celebration, I decided to simply show up at CWTS’ doorstep. I didn’t think I was very likely to find anybody I could talk to there, as it was still the holiday period. However, I was about to go on a one-month holiday to Austria, so I didn’t want to leave without at least trying to contact the CWTS again. So I rang the bell, was let in by the secretary and asked for Paul Wouters. He wasn’t in. But, to my relief, Cornelis van Bochove was. I had already been recommended to talk to him. He is a professor emeritus of science policy studies and was very curious about what I had to say. I explained to him my views of science and why I am here, and left my CV and my essay with him.

The rest is history, which I will tell you soon in an upcoming episode of this special theme Science Backstage.

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

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