Farewell to science


By The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was twelve, I have invented my own hierarchy of professions in  the modern society. At the top there were scientists who moved the rest of humanity per aspera ad astra. On the lower rung were doctors and teachers. The former because they look after health of everybody including the scientists, the latter  because they trained scientists and everyone else. The rest of humanity which consisted of engineers, workers and peasants, merged into a useful, but not individually identifiable masses.

The Soviet society was technocratic so there was a  system to encourage people to be interested in science. On TV there were programes like ” In the world of animals”, and most importantly – “Obvious – unbelievable” about the scientific discoveries. The library  had popular science books, in which  science was  presented as accumulation of fun facts.  When I was in high school  my parents – a teacher and a medical doctor – subscribed for me to the magazine “Science and Life.” Finally, in our home library beside 12 volumes of pupil’s Encyclopedia  we had a “little red book of a budding scientist” – “Monday Begins on Saturday” by Strugatsky brothers, where scientists have been  clever and interesting,  their life useful and fun.

School subject competitions  (Olympiads, something like spelling bees but in Biology, Chemistry etc. starting from the school level up to the level of whole USSR) provided me a window into a different life, where people thought not only about clothes and food, and the currency in the conversation was not admiration of  boy bands  and  makeup tips, but  opinions about  Dostoevsky and the Kalahari Desert. And after adrenaline  injection with the victory at the Olympics awards in the form of honor and respect in school and at home. Interest in science gave a different  the provincial bell-jar claustrophobic self-identity, and the goal – to move to a larger city, as well as a means of achieving it.

The girl who won the first place at the Republican Biology Olympiad (1995) enrolled in a medical school. I (6th place, II degree diploma) brushed off such an option, as  I was firmly convinced that MD is secondary to PhD and the way to science was via

Biological Faculty of the Belarusian State University.

The year was 1991, the year of the coup and empty shelves. Socialist ideology was a colossus with feet of clay, science – its victim, but a  statue of Athena.  With bated breath I came to a microbiology laboratory,  to do  real experiments (!) after the day at the University, during vacations, and finally instead of the lectures. Live science was all that I imagined – meritocratic, an interesting, and involved interesting, kind, cheerful people.

But as the Soviet Union was falling apart, the ivory tower of science was cracking more and more. From the articles in Western journals, which I read painstakingly with a dictionary it was clear that they were doing something that was not possible to us. I remember a trip to the storage of reagents, filled  with glass jars of dried salmon sperm DNA; we took the last jar of a potassium salt. A bottle with the absolute alcohol was kept in a safe of the department head, and used only for bribing the  plumbers. In the lab we used an industrial waste mix of alcohol and ether, which exploded with orange sparks and sometimes killed bacteria we plated.

By that time the postdocs all left the lab. They needed money to feed their families: some became  ‘entrepeneurs’, some decided to stick with science abroad – to France, the US, the UK.

One of the graduate students, which in Soviet times would have had a guaranteed  tenure  in the department after the viva,  with time a free apartment and a car, earned her living by making soft toys and teaching chemistry at a vocational school. The second graduate student became a director of a small company.

By inertia, I entered the  graduate school, although it was clear to me that doing a PhD in such conditions required superhuman effort, and I was incapable of it.

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Eventually,  after much hesitation, deliberation and a breakup with the best  ever boyfriend, I decided to try doing a PhD in Britain. This went well. I though I would be able to work as a post-doctoral research assistant (postdoc) for many, many years – as postdocs in my thesis supervisor lab did.

It was a naive idea. Only a state, where the pursuit of science has long-term goals,  is able to support  it as a long-term occupation. Around the Western world  the life science bubble burst. If in  2000 the main selection for a long-term career was  at  the level of getting  a Fellowship – a personal grant for 5 years,  which almost inevitably followed by a tenure position of  lecturer/head of the laboratory, now even professors in their prime don’t have money for research.

In this situation, even a good postdoc with many publications in respected journals after two contracts (6 years at best, they are getting shorter) is considered a waste material without a future.  In the UK over the last 10 years, the same thing happened as during the collapse of the USSR: first, they cut down the money for postdocs, the science is done  by PhD students with very slim prospects after graduation.

This can be a bonus for science in short-term, because a change of people every 6 years guaranties against people who just pretend doing science, as it often happened in the USSR. The downside is that the reprehensibility of the results inevitably falls, due to lower qualifications of those producing the results,  the lack of time to repeat the experiments, and the lack of long-term consequences for this. Science relies on personal reputation, but a man who knows that with high probability  in 3 years he’ll do something completely different and is under a constant pressure to produce results, will not worry too much if they cannot be repeated. Re: Top Science Scandals of 2014.

… But I digress. Three years ago, at the end of my earlier grant, one good man predicted that  my current postdoc will be the last. He was right, but I don’t want to be a postdoc anymore, didn’t want for a while. Although the grant was successful: a paper published in a good journal and another one in preparation, plus three graduate students who are working on related topics, we were not awarded a new grant, supposedly because what we want to study yeast, not sexy synthetic biology. Just as bacteriology is deemed too old fashioned, and we have the antibiotic crisis.

Capitalist science is good in keeping its scientists lean and mean (literally, there is a definite selection for slave drivers among the academics, none of the “kind and interesting people” nonsense). It does worse in the long-term planning.

This is the end – or new beginning

So again I  searched for work. I made three applications – to aa Scientific Officer (senior technician) position at the local university (MMU) and two postdocs. The first postdoc description  fitted my CV 90%, but they chose to  employ a man with a similar 90%, but 10 years younger.

I’ve got an interview  for the second postdoc position,  for which I would need to relocate and had only 50% skill overlap. I  cancelled the interview because  on the same day when I didn’t the postdoc N1, I was offered the job at the MMU. The work will consist of  preparing stuff for experiments for future high school teachers of Biology. Zero science. In theory, I can work there until the retirement. In practice, I’ve seen people looking for a job after being on  supposedly permanent contracts.

I feel like somebody on a sinking ship who sees a boat approaching. Loyalty to the  scientific supervisor was squeezed drop by drop from me during my moves from Minsk to Edinburgh to Aberdeen to Newcastle to Manchester. This also prevented an attachment to a specific topic of research. General interest in science is easily maintained by reading scientific magazines.  I’ll miss highly intellectual conversations, but creativity – including interest in science – I can do in my own time.

When a was a student, my relationship with science was like a relationship with a boyfriend –  he was poor but honorable and with the prospects. Current British science is like an aging rock star, who every ten years changes his current wife for a younger model.  I concluded a long time ago  that if a man does not want me, chasing him is useless, it is much easier to find another one. My relationship with science will not be different – if it prefers to chew and spit younger people, I can find an alternative.

Contrary to what I thought as a 12 y.o., scientist is not the only career worth pursuing.


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