Monday, March 19, 2012

Scientists-who-are-not-paid.

I absolutely love Nancy Collins's article in the new Spring issue of American Entomologist. She's a perfect example of a passionate naturalist, a taxonomic specialist of Ocanthinae (tree crickets). She has traveled the continent (and beyond), collecting, recording songs, and identifying specimens. Her website is excellent, with a level of detail and public outreach to serve as models for the rest of us. She is a scientist.

But I don't see why I need to talk about her as a "citizen scientist". She has published original research, worked in connection with other researchers, presented at professional meetings, and is an expert in her group. She's an autodidact, sure, but so is every other taxonomist; specialist taxonomy isn't exactly taught in classes. There's no "Orthoptera 101" course taught at university. I for one don't think there is a need for a disclaimer at the bottom of her website, saying her research "has no scientific basis".

Is there something I'm missing here, some sort of requirement that scientists must get paid to do scientific work in order to be (flat out) scientists? Am I the only one who thinks oxymoron when the phrase "professional amateur" appears in print?

I'm not knocking the intentions of the American Entomologist editors. This issue's focus on "citizen science" was a product of a special session from last year's annual meeting. It was meant to spotlight entomological research going on outside of academia, which is good and right and noble. And I know they didn't mean anything insulting by it.

But when people of any age do good scientific research, paid or unpaid, within or outside of academia they are not "citizen-scientists" or "para-taxonomists", they are just scientists and taxonomists. They are certainly not "amateurs", as their knowledge attests to work equaling "professionals". I can't be the only one who finds this condescension like head patting when a child scores high on an exam. I value Nancy's research higher than that. We don't need to qualify it as somehow different.

Or if you must, 'taxahacker' is acceptable. Though, some people may find that offensive for other reasons.

12 comments:

Morgan Jackson said...

I agree that trying to differentiate between "amateur" scientists and employed scientists is a ridiculous endeavour. Biology & entomology started off as hobby pursuits, pursued by people of all socioeconomic classes; it's only in the past 150 years (or less) that the momentum has shifted towards university-based researchers.

I saw Nancy talk at ESA and had the opportunity to speak with her over lunch, and she knows her stuff just as well as most "pros", and was more outwardly enthusiastic than many! I'm not sure why she feels her work "has no scientific basis", as she tests hypotheses, makes discoveries and shares her work with the world, no less than any other scientist.

The way that taxonomy funding/hiring is going, it won't be long until most taxonomic research is being conducted by individuals who have day jobs in other fields or industries!

SoundingTheSea said...

Whoever says scientists need to be paid to be real scientists never met a graduate student.

TGIQ said...

Great post. I completely agree. These arbitrary and divisive lines get drawn in the sand, and do no one any favors.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Morgan, I agree. And maybe that is for the best. I'm not sure that the 'professionals' get that much more work done, being caught up in administrative and teaching duties. There's also the issue that replacing personal reward with monetary payment tends to reduce passion for the work (http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/12/14/the-overjustification-effect/). If all taxonomists got paid for all the work they did, less work would probably get done overall.

If we are really going this direction, perhaps we need a guild of taxonomists (foreshadowing future post...)

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

SoundingtheSea -

You're right, it's not even about the payment. The differentiation is about the superiority of academics over non-academics simply because they are, rather than by knowledge or skill. And often not by any conscious intent.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

TGIQ -

Would that I could erase the lines overnight, and never hear another person say "pro-am".

dave said...

I guess I don't mind the "pro-am" designations. I actually prefer my gentleman trichopterist choice. I may do what I want when I want and how I want. I enjoy the folks I collect with and collaborate with. There is plenty to do for all.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Dave, while you may not feel it directly, I don't think the differentiation is to any of our benefit, and certainly not to the benefit of natural history.

Ted C. MacRae said...

aCount me also among those who have not noticed any provincial use of the term "Pro-Am" among academics. Indeed Dave Pearson recently wrote a great paper detailing the important role that Pro-Ams will have in slowing continued decline of taxonomy as a discipline. As a self-proclaimed Pro-Am beetle taxonomist, I enjoy a level of access to professional taxomists that would be possible if there really were such feelings of superiority. I'm generally encouraged by the inclusive approach that most taxonomists (pro and am) seem to be taking in the interest of advancing our discipline.

Ted C. MacRae said...

Err.. "wouldn't be possible"

Gunnar said...

Sorry about coming late to the party.

The word amateur comes from the latin amare, which means "to love". I love the taxonomy that I am doing, hence I will always remain an amateur.

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