Who is a "Professional Scientist"?

By Michael Edmonds 09/03/2012

A few days ago Peter Griffin’s post Science: Are we doing it all wrong? discussed the new report from the McGuinness Institute looking at how research is currently done in New Zealand and how it could supposedly be done better. The last couple of days I’ve been perusing this document and there are some interesting ideas. However, I am finding some suggestions which I can’t quite understand the purpose of, for example:

“One of the findings of this report is that those who operate in the science community do not administer themselves as a profession; there is no qualification or organisational body that sets standards as to when and how the term ‘scientist’ may be used after someone’s name. Providing more clarity over how this term is used would promote the science community and enable it to develop a better long-‐term relationship with society.

We believe the issue of who is a ‘scientist’ could easily be resolved by adding a professional body within the Royal Society, in much the same way the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA) administers use of the term ‘Chartered Accountant’. For example, the term ‘Professional Scientist’ could be used to identify individuals who have a Bachelor of Science degree, have four years’ work experience and now spend more than 50% of their working hours on science-‐related research or development.”

I’m struggling to see the benefit of labeling people as “professional scientists”, particularly based on the definition given above.

Can anyone see a reason for this?

0 Responses to “Who is a "Professional Scientist"?”

  • “Can anyone see a reason for this?”

    Sure can. Create yet another waste of money in the formation of yet another NZ bureaucracy, populated by an overabundance of middle-managers who know nothing about science, but want to feel like they do.

    Oh, wait, I suppose you meant a GOOD reason?

    then, no.


  • …seriously, I see no benefit to the entire proposal. It would entirely rule out those who publish a paper every 5 years or so as not a scientist, even if they spend most of their time researching.

    How in the hell would one get a grant then?

    it’s bloody silly.

  • The reason is surely that professional societies have high fees, and all scientists would have to pay those to the organisation. There’s absolutely no benefit to scientist or client, but a lot to the organising body, which would not even be expert at the various disciplines.

    The idea that professional scientists have to fulfil some minimal academic criteria plus work experience appears to be little different to the membership of current specialist societies, eg NZIC for chemists.

    Surely any “professional” organisation would have to perform regular reviews of an individual’s competency ( aside from the annual fee remittal ), as happens in the medical and trades fields.

    IPENZ appears slightly different – in that the engineers do have to meet more rigorous criteria imposed and controlled by peers who are skilled in the specific activity.

  • I see little benefit is trying to commodity scientists into one body. Most of us 1. Stand by our qualifications and 2. Belong to one or more specialist institution/society. The McGuinness report adds little new to the science debate in New Zealand.

    • Shaun,

      Lets not dismiss the whole report, just because of one unusual suggestion. There are some very interesting ideas scattered through out the report, and it does provide an interesting overview of the history of science in NZ.
      Overall, however, while I think the report provides an overview of science in New Zealand and some general ideas where NZ should head, it lacks specifics – but then I guess that it is always those at the coal face who end up making science work. A pity they don’t seem to be consulted very often.

  • Ichthyic, Bruce

    Yes, I am struggling to see anything in this suggestion that benefits those who would belong to it. A chemist in NZ might already belong to the NZIC and the Royal Society so why would we want a third organisation to belong to?
    If the purpose of the organisation is to somehow promote the integrity of the scientist then I can’t see how this works. There would be some people who fit the definition provided of a professional scientist who I don’t think fit my idea of a scientist. On the other hand there are many who lie outside of that definition who I think could and should be defined as a scientist, professional or otherwise.

  • Actually, here is another thought, when it comes to all of these reports about science in New Zealand. Some are written by those who have limited practical experience (if any) as a scientist, others a written by those who have excelled in science in New Zealand, so in my opinion, have a biased understanding of science in New Zealand. When are those who are average everyday scientists or those who have struggled with the system going to be consulted?

    The view from the top and the view from the sides is very different (and less chaotic) that those in the middle of the New Zealand science system.

  • Thanks Michael. My comment was a little stark and does need explanation. There is not much in the report that has not been previously identified, and as such it risk becoming just another report. Why do they become “just another report”. The reason, in my view, is that these reports are rarely debated in the public arena. And, when they are debated, we tend to focus on how we can reorganise the deck chairs (or, more to the point, how we can carve up the money). Paul Callaghan is correct – we need to discuss, debate, contest these reports. As a nation it would not hurt us to ask the question: what is it we want our science to do?

    Further, I don’t believe that the debate can be run from the centre. It must come from the community.

  • It has occurred to me that – using the definition proposed in this report – the scientists in my institution wouldn’t even be considered as ‘professional scientists’ because of the 40:40:20 (research:teaching:admin) model that is supposed to prevail.

  • Shaun, good point. the report does seem to do a lot of collating other information into one report, which in some aspects is useful. It certainly made me think about some aspects of science I hadn’t considered before.
    I think you are right, there needs to be discussion and debate about science in NZ. I have been to one science “innovation” event run in NZ but all it was, was politicians, bigwigs and a few, rare, successful scientists giving their views with (if we were lucky) time for one question at the end of each talk. This is not discussion – it is the isolated, disconnected views of a few, which ignores the valuable input of so many experienced scientists.

    When it comes down to it there are ideas that come up again and again in every report – more funding, better collaboration and more effective career pathways for scientists would improve science in New Zealand. Changing the bureaucracy so that the same limited funding is distributed differently makes no sense.

    Alison, that point has occurred to me as well. It certainly is a very limiting definition.

  • If the purpose of the organisation is to somehow promote the integrity of the scientist then I can’t see how this works.

    I can’t either. Strangely, I always relied on peer-review for integrity issues, both for myself and, well, my peers!

    And it doesn’t add another layer of unnecessary and ultimately futile bureaucracy.

    I can see why there are organizations trying to push for a review of how science is funded; I saw the same thing many times in the States. The problem is, these things are rarely, if ever, driven by a sense of what would be good for promoting SCIENCE, and instead, as mentioned, are usually either attempts by middle-management types to make a niche for themselves, or just political stunts.

    I get the sense this effort is more of the middle management type.

    One thing I would agree with, although it isn’t quite clear to me that this proposal pushes the idea, is to have more large-scale funding organizations independent from the government here in NZ, that can help to coordinate and fund projects that involve multiple GOs, NGOs, and university staff working on related issues.

    I have never seen any evidence though, that most private industry feels any need to involve themselves in pure research, and I can’t see any real motivating factor for them to do so, aside from notoriety. Any private industry I’ve ever been involved with far prefers to keep their research in-house, for rather obvious reasons!

  • “I think you are right, there needs to be discussion and debate about science in NZ.”

    Oh yes, most certainly, This was even expressed as the single most important wish by the person (whose name I now forget) that a couple months back won some prestigious NZ science award.

    I myself, as expressed above, note a dire lack in NZ of umbrella funding organizations. Things like the Hewlett Packard Foundation back in the states. There appears to be little if any real coordination between many of the different institutions doing research here in NZ, and I’ve seen many interesting projects fall through the cracks because of it.

    I think it’s high time we organized a nationwide conference to discuss the issue; propose solutions like outreach programs that would invite non-profit funding organizations like HP to set up here in NZ, and solve this problem ourselves, as scientists, rather than waiting for some think-tank to muck up the job.

  • Pardon me for continuing on…

    I recall having a similar discussion with Aimee Whitcroft in Wellington a couple years back. If she is back from SA, I might shoot her an email and see what she thinks of the idea of setting up an open forum here to discuss whether we should organize a conference.

  • I know im a little late to the game here (only just catching up on old posts) – but to to add a different viewpoint to those expressed above a ‘view from the bottom’ from a PhD student’s perspective. Whilst not being necessarily counted as an actualy scientist by the report (that i have no issue with – but perhaps it’s another kettle of fish!), the report does appear to elicudate a common symptom of NZ science – that with no view for the long term. As a potential future scientist, this is distressing on many fronts – the most obvious being my own personal career option – which, in the realm of the report, seems to suggest i would have a much better chance at folllowing a scientific career if i was overseas, given that many countries DO have a long term science goal written into their social framework. This suggests to me that things like funding, social acceptance of my position and role in society, and the general quality of research would be higher overseas.

    Now please understand that im NOT implying that this is the case for NZ – far from it, I love working here! But reports like this often fail to consider the implications for not only current scientists but future scientists as well. The recommendation discussed above appears to be nothing more than standard beaurocratic re-shuffling, and if this is the future of NZ science – it does raise the question in many youngsters eyes – is that something we really want to be a part of? When we do have the option of participating in foreign forward-thinking science, it’s difficult to see the value added to my career and research by another membership.

    Ichthyic – the lovely miss Whicroft would definitely be interested in a conversation with you i think!

  • The term scientist has poped up in all fields of academic these days. It puzzled me sometimes to think why a software company has a title for a chief scientist? Economists see themselves as scientists and if anyone doubts what I’m saying here, then look no further than the Nobel Prize for economics which is called Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences.

    Statisticians are also scientists, even expert marketing gurus call themselves, scientists simply because the methods of data analysis they use is similar or exactly the same as those ones used by researchers in hard core sciences.

    I’m concerned that one day, homeopathy and anti-vaccine proponents will start using similar statistical analytic methods used in hardcore sciences, to claim that they are also scientists.

    Anyway, a title with professional scientist would be meaningless if economists, marketers, statisticians, start calling themselves scientists. In saying that, I have no objection if any individuals from those disciplines call themselves scientists and there shouldn’t be any legislation against anyone who wants to call him/herself a scientist.

  • I think more sense would be made of the concept of “professional scientist”, in the context of the McGuiness Institute Report, if one is to read the whole report and not just the executive summary. The discussion of this subject is in an “ethics” framework (p 77). This makes good sense to me if we are to gain more public trust. Only those scientists who are members of the Royal Society of New Zealand have signed up to a “code of ethics” as far as I am aware.