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The drunkenness of discovery

Why scientists derive so much satisfaction from their work

Arquivo/AE Laboratory inauguration at FEI, the School of Industrial Engineering (1977)Arquivo/AE

What leads a person to choose a scientific career, if this profession demands a huge intellectual effort that is not as financially rewarding as it should be, given the related challenges? How do scientists maintain their enthusiasm in the face of the uncertainties that permeate their mission of advancing knowledge? This motivation is often seen as akin to a religious vocation, as Max Weber wrote in works about science and politics as vocations: “Without this unique drunkenness, which is laughed at by all those who are removed from science, without this passion, without this certainty that thousands of years went by before you had access to life, and millions of lives will slide by in silence if you are unable to formulate that conjecture; without this, you will never have the vocation for science and will be better off dedicating yourself to some other activity.”

More recent sociological investigations show that, although common sense is not entirely mistaken, there is also a dynamic that explains the singularities of the profession of scientist that goes beyond the belief that scientists are eccentric geniuses, absorbed in problem solving, sometimes intangible and not attuned to daily misery. The profession ensures deep personal satisfaction, derived from the freedom of being able to organize one’s own work and pleasure in reaping the fruit of success. “Industrial work has become alienating, because it details stages and imposes monotonous and tiresome tasks, whereas the science profession, as any other profession of an intellectual nature, is essentially creative and has been able to preserve control over the entire production process,” says sociologist Neide Hahn, who wrote a paper that has become a standard reference on the issue. Prestige – more than the figures on the paycheck – is one of the main drivers of this profession; this prestige is granted in the form of the acknowledgement of peers and of society and in the ability to raise funds to continue to pursue research studies.

In 1975, Neide Hahn presented her master’s degree dissertation, the title of which was “Scientist: the individual and the occupation.” This was the first time in Brazil that the work done by scientists was characterized and the motivations of this social group were evaluated. Under the advice of sociologist Leôncio Martins Rodrigues, from the School of Liberal Arts at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH/USP), the research study was based on interviews with 120 scientists from different fields of science, connected with universities and research centers from the State of São Paulo, who had received grants from FAPESP in previous years.

One of the most eloquent pieces of data concerns the career advantages that the respondents mentioned. Intellectual satisfaction, translated into the ability to further knowledge and solve problems, was the main motivation mentioned by 57.5% of the respondents. The second driver, mentioned by 13.3%, was the possibility of solving social problems, followed by freedom at work (11.7%) and the possibility of earning social or financial rewards (6.7%). “Researchers enjoy a sense of self realization, in relation to the main goal of their profession: the pursuit of knowledge, the solution of problems, and the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity,” wrote Neide Hahn.

The self-image expressed by the researchers also deserves to be mentioned. They said that the essential conditions for the performance of their professional activities are: first, the right personality, based on the notion of intellectual honesty; intelligence and individual effort. The dissertation suggests that scientific work comes close to the model described by American sociologist Charles Wright Mills (1918-1962), who stated that this work is akin to “craftsmanship”, in that it reflects the need to earn a living, but is also an artistic act capable of bringing about inner peace. The profession’s most admired characteristics were the opportunity to exercise one’s own vocation and the intellectual satisfaction of solving theoretical problems.

LucréŽcio/AE Laboratory at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine and Nursing (1971)LucréŽcio/AE

Work and leisure
The descriptions that the interviewed scientists provided contain interesting information. In general, the respondents were moderate consumers; most of them had savings accounts and invested mostly in real estate. 42.5% of the respondents stated that their best friends are also their professional colleagues, a sign of how the boundaries between work and leisure are flimsy. 18.3% of the respondents stated that they read scientific literature and engage in activities related to their profession in their free time. Only 3 of the 120 researchers were single. Two were widowers and the other two were divorced. As the paper showed, many of the researchers were married, generally to women with a better education level than that of the average Brazilian woman at the time: 62% of the wives had a university degree in the same professional field as their husbands”.

Even though the financial reward was voiced as being a secondary benefit of the profession, it cannot be said that the researchers were poorly paid. “Although this is a relatively well-paid profession, scientists are at a disadvantage in terms of earnings relative to other professional categories. Another hypothesis is that they have high salary aspirations, which might lead one to suppose that they ascribe an excessively high value to the activity they engage in,” Neide wrote. More than two-thirds (72%) of the respondents stated that they were dissatisfied with their income (ranging from 15 to 37 minimum salaries at the time). But the fact is that the profession is one way to climb the social ladder. “In general, the interviewed researchers had been upgraded from the middle class to the upper middle class,” Neide Hahn stated at the time. It is a fact that at that time, various other professional fields benefited from social mobility mechanisms. But 64% of the respondents stated that they had better standards of living than their parents had enjoyed.

Neide Hahn’s study was conduced more than three decades ago, but some of its results are still current. According to Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor at the Political Science Department of FFLCH/USP, scientists’ satisfaction with their profession is a global phenomenon and was not affected by the evolution of the role of researchers, whose independence is being challenged by the requirement that they maintain a stronger interface with the productive sector and who are often evaluated according to the volume of funding they are able to attract. Last January, the professor attended an international conference in Hiroshima, Japan, where the results of an international project were presented. This project monitors the evolution of the academic profession in several countries. Elizabeth and professor Simon Schwartzman are Brazil’s representatives in this network.

“We were surprised by the results achieved, even in countries that had implemented in-depth reforms in their higher education systems. Nonetheless, professional satisfaction is still at a high level,” she says, referring to Australia as an example, whose funding system now requires that researchers raise part of the necessary research funds from the private sector. “In Holland, tenure is no longer part of universities’ rules and researchers have to show productivity on an ongoing basis. Pressure comes from all sides and some of it is not controlled by academia. Nowadays, many researchers are obliged to negotiate with parties that not too long ago would have been unacceptable, such as the more radical animal protection organizations, which impose restrictions on the use of animals in research,” she states. When compared to the situation in many developed countries, the situation in Brazil can be considered quite satisfactory in many respects. “The pressure to show productivity is less strong. In the case of the São Paulo state universities, which get a fixed percentage of funding, and which have the autonomy to use these funds, the researchers’ freedom of work has been unaffected. Funding from FAPESP also adds to this different set of circumstances,” the professor states.

It is probable that the pleasure derived from scientific work is not only connected with freedom and the protection of the academic environment. A survey published in 2005 by US magazine The Scientist evaluated the satisfaction of scientists hired to conduct research studies in major corporations in the United States, Canada and Europe. The related data shows that they think just like their colleagues in academia: they derive a lot of satisfaction from their work because they feel it is very important. The satisfaction grows when other elements are present, such as working with honest colleagues and under the ethical standards determined by the company.

Arquivo/AE Field research at ESALQ, the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (1960)Arquivo/AE

Pressure to publish
In the opinion of Shozo Motoyama, head professor of FFLCH/USP and director of the university’s Cross-Units Center of the History of Science, the research profession is changing, but this has not diminished the pleasure it provides. “The number of scientists has increased significantly and, given the importance new technology has acquired, many researchers have developed the skills that enable them, for example, to set up their own businesses and earn money outside the academic environment,” says the professor. “They are no longer like that intellectual elite that lived in the lab, totally disregarding community life. However, they are still part of the intellectual elite, though now they benefit from the maxim voiced by geneticist Crodowaldo Pavan about his work. He always says: ‘I have fun and somebody pays me to have fun’,” says Motoyama.

Many researchers complain about specific changes in the profile of their work. More specifically, they complain about the growing pressure to publish vast numbers of academic articles, summed up in the slogan “Publish or perish.” Although the pressure to publish was not as strong in the 1970s, data obtained by Neide Hahn in her dissertation in 1975 show that concern with divulging their papers was already significant. On average, the interviewed scientists who were also head professors had published an average of 76 papers. This number dropped to 48.2 among the assistant professors, to 42 among the associate professors, to 16.9 among those with PhDs and to 23 among those with master’s degrees. “The head professors were mostly very productive, at a time when the pressure to publish was much weaker than it is today,” says professor Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the electronic library SciELO Brasil.

This performance does not surprise political scientist Elizabeth Balbachevsky, from USP. First, she points out that this was a unique sample. “FAPESP has always been very strict about granting funds and scholarships and the fact that they were given grants by the Foundation is always an indicator of a professional with a special profile,” she states. On the other hand, the professor points out that publicizing findings is an ancient concern; it is part of the ethos of science. “Even at that time, especially in the field of pure science, a scientist who did not publish articles in specialized journals was simply not recognized by his or her peers as a scientist,” she states. “The new element is not the need to publish, but rather the advent of indicators that measure the impact of specialized journals and of their articles, lending accuracy to the evaluation of the importance of academic production,” says Elizabeth Balbachevsky. American sociologist Robert Merton (1910-2003), a pioneer in the field of the sociology of science, had already pointed out – when he was studying how scientists behaved and what their motivations were – the need to submit findings to peers as one of the essential characteristics of the scientific profession. According to Merton, the main cultural rules internalized by researchers include the submission to impersonal judgment criteria and the idea that discoveries are a product of social collaboration and, as such, must be divulged and submitted to peer evaluation. Therefore, publishing is the essence of the scientist’s work. And perishing is just not acceptable for individuals who are so motivated by their chosen profession.