Why do people become and remain scientists

by Oded Goldreich

[Dec 2011]

Why do people become and remain scientists?
My focus is on computer (or rather TOC) scientists, but I believe that a similar analysis applies to almost any other scientific (or engineering) discipline.

I distinguish four types of reasons that cause people to become scientists:

  1. fascination with the questions underlying this discipline;
  2. fascination with the possible applications of this discipline;
  3. careerism (i.e., being thrilled by (or just interested in) the benefits of a scientific career);
  4. life circumstances.
Needless to say, the foregoing are four pure types. As is the case in any social discussion, pure forms may exist only in an ideal world (e.g., in the discussion), whereas in reality one sees various mixed forms (i.e., weighted mixes of all types).

The first three types differ from the last one, since the latter seems transitional in nature. Furthermore, the former three types refer to an active decision (which is based on an attraction to some aspect of the discipline), whereas the latter refers to following (general extra-disciplinary) circumstances in a passive manner or at least in a way that may be perceived as passive (at least by the subject). [Let me comment that that I became a TOC scientist (purely) due to life circumstances.]

My main thesis is that although one may become a scientist due to any mix of the aforementioned four reasons, one can remain an active scientist only by motivations rooted in the first two reasons. Thus, I claim that careerism cannot serve as a good reason for remaining an active scientist. Since Max Weber provided an excellent analysis of this issue (in his famous 1918/9 lecture/essay "Science as a vocation"), I see no reason to try to provide an "original" analysis.

According to Weber's analysis, focusing on one's career and personality may generate some temporal benefits, but it cannot generate true science, since the latter requires a true engagement with the (highly complex) subject-matter. Thus, in the long term, careerism will even fail to serve the careerist, since lacking the engagement will fail any attempt to do great science. Needless to say, pure careerism will always fail to give a feeling of responding to the vocation of science, which means that the careerist is doomed to a meaningless pursuit of goals that are very hard to achieve. Such a person will be better off selecting less frustrating careers, since a "scientific career" is worthy its frustration only when the vocation of science is present in it.

Indeed, Weber's point is that science is not merely fun. It is often very frustrating and is so in various ways; Weber focuses more on the real-life aspects of remaining in an unstable situation (i.e., insecure position) to a relatively old age (in comparison to the norms of the general society), whereas I will focus on the frustrations inherent to the research itself. In fact, I would say that research is typically frustrating, and that the compensation is obtained in the untypical periods of successful progress. The progress can be either personal or general, and it can refer to either an understanding (e.g., shedding light on known phenomena or discovering/inventing new ones) or an improvement performance (e.g., obtaining a better analysis of a know process or inventing a better process). One feels gratified even when only exceeding one's prior understanding and/or performance, but certainly the feeling is greatly intensified when exceeding the boundaries of what was previously understood and/or performed by anybody else. (Indeed, the words ``understanding'' and ``performance'' were chosen to echo the two first reasons for becoming a scientist.)

Let me take a brief detour and say that one can prolong the aforementioned gratifying feeling by learning to enjoy the process of reporting of the progress done (i.e., writing papers). In fact, one should realize that the vocation of science is linked to a scientific community. We are happy about extending the boundaries of what was understood and/or performed by anybody before, because we take a specific scientific community as our reference group. Thus, we should view reporting to this group not merely as a duty but also as a gratifying activity; after all, were our attempts at progress not aimed at reporting this progress (once achieved)? If so, then why not view the reporting itself as an integral part of the research-aimed-at-progress activity?

In any case, it is the gratifying feeling of achieving a personal or universal progress that compensates for the frustrations involved in the scientific activity. Actually, one may also be gratified by helping others to achieve such progress. In both cases, this feeling is intense if and only if one cares about the discipline.

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