November 3, 2013

Is the standard for being a person of respect in science that you do something “great”?

If you haven’t done anything “great” with your science does this mean you were a waste of space and grant money?

If you answer yes, how many of the people in your sub field have accomplished “great” science?

21 Responses to “Greatness”

  1. Dr Becca Says:

    This is a very silly discussion. I don’t know anyone in my field, even in a broad sense, who talks about “greatness.” People are known for doing “good” work – well-designed, controlled studies that result in knowledge that moves the field forward.


  2. The Other Dave Says:

    Not the standard, obviously. But something to aspire to.


  3. AcademicLurker Says:

    Isn’t it an integral part of how science works that even unglamorous yeoman’s work like characterizing yet another receptor or solving yet another protein structure is nevertheless valuable?

    Each individual additional piece of additional knowledge might not be terribly exciting by itself, but the whole collection of pieces is what allows the occasional “great” work to take place.

    I’ve heard that even great scientists read the literature and communicate with their colleagues, rather than sitting in a cave and advancing science through pure thought.


  4. Crystal Voodoo Says:

    My subfield is prime Nobel fodder but innovative and useful still trump snazzy or “great” in the respect department. The hardware, software, and experimental technique developers are our rock stars.


  5. Zuska Says:

    People in other fields go to work each day with the intent of doing a good job and being of service to humanity. I don’t think most of them are wondering or hoping that their work is going to make them “great”. For example: primary care physicians, airline pilots, people in pharma (yes! true! some of them at least), K-12 teachers, stay-at-home parents, coal miners. You may argue that these people aren’t engaged in the all-important endeavor of “research”. I’m just asking, what it is it about research that makes or should make someone “great”? Why would it be something to aspire to? We know it motivates work whether or not anyone wants to admit it.

    The other fields of endeavor where people explicitly want to be great that come immediately to mind are professional sports and investment banker-types. I think it’s all the same kind of great, or wanting of the greatness – wanting acknowledgement from peers or people that matter, that one is the best, totally awesome at whatever. There’s a difference between wanting to be great and wanting to do good at your job. You can be dishonest and unethical in the pursuit of greatness but not in the pursuit of doing a good job. IMO people who are just interested in doing a good job rarely get anointed as great.


  6. GMP Says:

    I don’t know about how many people accomplish great science, but in my field people definitely look for “star potential.” As in, we are not going to hire this perfectly solid candidate, but rather this one as this one has the potential to be a superstar. Superstar means prestigious publications, tons of money, and implies being well-connected, doing trendy things, being a charismatic speaker etc. It is hard to say how much of this type of fad-driven work will pass the test of importance in 30-40 years, but there is no doubt that people are presently very focused on hiring potential superstars. It sickens me a little bit because most of these highly charismatic folks sound like used car salesmen to me.

    In the long run, people doing serious and solid science always turn out to be important, but nowadays doing good science is far from enough to advance your career.


  7. dr24hours Says:

    This was started by my tweet:

    I never had any intention of promulgating this as “the standard for being a person of respect in science”. I don’t think it is, or should be.

    Nor do I judge others by the standard I judge myself.


  8. old grantee Says:


    DM, you’re raising a rather profound question in a very casual way. I think it depends on how one defines “greatness”. IMO, the greatness lies on the intent driving a scientist’s journey. It is a particularly challenging one due to the nature of science itself and the context in which science is done. How a scientist faces her/his journey’s challenges are critical determinants of the respect he/she inspires in others and shapes the worthiness of her/his contributions. I also consider instrumental to possess and feel a “call for science” (in my case academic teaching and research). That’s key for keeping your senses alert and stay faithful to your intent and principles in the face the challenges that might arise during the journey.

    In that background, I believe that my science has been great and a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a creative environment that helped my own creativity. Together we were able to test innovative ideas and made important advances in our field.

    During my career I’ve come across and maintained wonderful interactions with people in different subfields of my field. They have been doing great science. Did not get a Nobel Prize or any of those fancy Awards or tons of millions of dollar in grants, but have been an inspiration to many as to how to conduct a fulfilled and successful scientific life.

    Unfortunately, I have also to concur with GMP’s appreciation on the perception of greatness in science in the last 10-15 yrs. I wish we could work together to reverse the negative impact of that almost pervasive perception.


  9. old grantee Says:


    “I have also to concur with GMP’s appreciation”, it should read

    “I have also to concur with GMP’s characterisation”.


  10. @zuska

    Maybe it’s just because I don’t care about sports so people with excellent muscle reflexes aren’t that impressive to me and I don’t even understand the theoretical concept of a “great banker” (one who isn’t dishonest? Admittedly that seems rare enough these days) , but I always thought the implicit comparison with “great scientists” was with great creative people – great artists and novelists. The thing with this sort of greatness is that it generally gets recognized after the fact – when the “great” person is near retirement or is even dead, because the greatness isn’t so much contained in their work itself but how that influenced their field over time.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    GMP has nailed the issue that most concerns me. We DO have a conceit in science that everything must be “great”. New hires are one example. Grant review (“Innovative!!!!!”) another. Tenure criteria. Full Professor criteria. Even if in the end people who are clearly nothing of the sort get passed along, the formal criteria lean strongly towards “great” in my view.

    In a lot of ways this is supposed to be aspirational, I suppose. But over fetishizing the concept has detrimental effects re: glamour chasing and cheating.


  12. Neuropop Says:

    How much of this “greatness” thing is endemic to the biomedical sciences? It seems that many Physics departments (outside of the hoity-toity ones) are much more cognizant of yeoman’s contributions to the field. For example, a friend of mine is a part of the LUX dark matter project, which involves a large number of scientists. His is a relatively small part, crucial, but small. When time came for tenure in his hoity-toity department, it was smooth sailing. The same attitude spilled over when my wife came up for her tenure in the same department. Although her research field was different, the same standards were applied. So, solid and thoughtful work with the potential for useful contributions are rewarded. Perhaps the headlong and heedless competition for NIH $$$ have colored our perceptions in the biomedical enterprise?


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I thought the Fizzycysts were over the moon about how smart they’ve decided each other is, rather than any specific accomplishment.


  14. @Neuropop: I know a number of physicists as well. One told me of the time his Russian professor for math (a string theorist) told the entire class they were “idiots” for “not being able to do multivariate calculus in their heads”.

    Meanwhile, you do hear stories about medical students being told they are “gods amongst men”. (I’m hoping they don’t do this anymore.)

    There do seem to be some interesting variations in “humility training” between the scientific disciplines……


  15. AcademicLurker Says:

    Neuropop, Allison and DM,

    Can’t we all just join hands across the disciplines and find common cause in our joint contempt for economists?


  16. @AL

    Now, now. Let’s not Internet Mod entire fields of study. I know a few econ folks, they’re not too bad. I just do so wish they would properly define their terms prior to attempting to do math to them. And perhaps take a population biology course.


  17. *Mob

    Gahhhh spelling…..


  18. Geologist Says:

    This discussion, especially GMP’s comment, brings to mind some people in my field who (1) get a TON of grant money (2) publish a lot of papers that give people easy to acquire numbers and (3) are therefore thought of as “great” by many people. However their work is pure flash in the pan CRAP.

    It won’t stand the test of time and the people who think they are “great” are those outside of this subfield who don’t understand that their work is based on false assumptions and therefore is utterly flawed. But they are good. Their slight of hand tricks are not easy to spot unless you work at it, and too many people WANT them to be right so as to make their own research easier and therefore more fundable. It is a house of cards that will eventually collapse.

    Only a few of us in the trenches, who sadly are not as charismatic, nor well-placed in a fancy top research university know that it is Bull$hit. It will take awhile for us dullards to show this charismatic stuff just isn’t going to hold up. How much money and time is wasted until that is achieved? far too much.


  19. Mike_F Says:

    To those who cannot conceive of a “great banker” or “great economist”, please read about Muhammad Yunis –


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    Yeah, love that microfinance guy.


  21. TeaHag Says:

    I would guess that most researchers would like to look back on their careers and know that they’ll be remembered and cited for at least one “impactful” piece of work.

    Great, I would suggest, reflects people with the smarts and the imagination to be able to do “impactful” repeatedly.

    I have one piece of this kind of research that significantly altered the perceptions of my obscure field and have no idea if I’ll ever do that again.


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