The Unreal World Of The Academic Scientist

I’m an academic (more or less). Which is great because it means I don’t live in the “real world”. No, I was born into a magical land where all I’ve ever had to do is sit in nice places (mostly Gothic in style), and think. I’ve definitely never worked in dull, crappy jobs to pay my rent or had to shuffle embarrassed from the supermarket when all my cards were declined. And my ivory tower is free of “real” things like bills and weather, so I’ve never gone to bed with two coats on to keep warm or lived somewhere where the rain came in through the bathroom wall.

I’m doubly lucky to be not just an academic but an academic Scientist. This means I am untroubled by all those things scientists aren’t interested in, like personal appearance, or any kind of art. Even better I never have to bother with those tiresome sounding human relationships. I’ve never had a broken heart, lost a loved one or tried to juggle all my important thinking with caring for sick children.

Heck no, the real world isn’t for me. I just think pointless thoughts, the magic spirits of academia sort out everything else.

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

Yes, this has been known to happen before.

On this occasion it was prompted by Tory MP Glyn Davis:

I’ll admit sarcasm isn’t a very mature or even a very vehement response. But, like most scientists and academics, I have come across  similar sentiments over and over again. We are seen by some as somehow “other”. Different from “normal” people in their “real” world.

Scientists, and academics more broadly, are supposed to be aloof from reality and either baffled by or disinterested in anything or anyone other than our narrow little fields of interest. Ok, I’d be lying if I said there was no one like that. I’ve certainly worked with a few people who didn’t play nicely with others, or consistently turned up in back to front and inside out clothes. But they are memorable because of their rarity.

I have worked with far more scientists who have very full and very “real” lives. My job often involves long periods of time watching experiments with other people. If nothing is going wrong, we chat. Yes about their research, but also about their kids; the problems of picking a school or juggling work and childcare when the cells in your dish won’t let you work 9-5, but nursery still shuts at 6. There are fears for elderly relatives living far away or worries about getting another job once the latest fixed term contract is up. These are very ordinary concerns, a PhD certificate doesn’t wave them away.

Then there is the related idea that academics have no interest in anything else, that we are lodged firmly and solely in our cold, rational left brains. Well firstly that left brain right brain thing is total nonsense and historically great scientists were often also artists. Science requires creative thinking. Not just looking at something and thinking ooh, that’s pretty, but wondering why it is, wrapping your imagination around the question and asking – could it possibly be because of …..?

I’ve worked with people who have played in chamber orchestras, west end shows and rock bands. People who can draw wickedly accurate (and wickedly funny) cartoons or spend their spare time painstakingly restoring antique clocks. I have colleagues who are fabulous cooks, ultra marathon runners or computer game masters. And lots of people who just like to crash out on the sofa and watch Game Of Thrones, play with their kids or take the dog for a long walk.

Typical academic, turning his back on the real world.

All of my colleagues are extraordinary scientists, some excel in other areas too, but all of them do all the normal stuff. They all have to somehow pay the rent or the mortgage, not an easy task on a post doc salary in central London. They all have to go to the supermarket and take out the bins. None of us were born university graduates. Our institutions don’t manage every aspect of our lives for us and unless we are very very unusual our salaries won’t run to a PA and team of household staff.

Yet according to Glyn Davies, we aren’t “real” and so our opinions, opinions on subjects we have studied and wrestled with for years, can simply be ignored and, sadly, he’s not the only one.

A few years ago I was in a minicab and the driver asked me what I did for a living. It’s a question that always makes me pause for a moment. Should I tell the truth? “I’m a scientist and I work in Cancer research”. It usually goes one of two ways: “ooh that’s really…worthy…(silence)” which is understandable, though a little uncomfortable. The other way, the way the minicab driver went, is the accusation that we are all going to hell for denying God (FYI I have plenty of colleagues with strong and varied religious beliefs, we aren’t all Dawkins) and that we are hiding the cure for cancer.

The threat of eternal damnation upsets me, the accusation that I’m hiding the cure for cancer makes me furious.

Scientist do live in the real world, a strange little corner of it perhaps, but a corner where some of us get sick with cancer, and some of us die from it. All of us have watched loved ones battle through Chemo and wished there was something better and kinder. All of us have lost people we care about and would have done anything to save. The idea that we would simply let them suffer and die for the sake of some grand conspiracy and our mediocre pay slips would be ridiculous if it weren’t so offensive.

We seem to live in a time when politicians sitting in ornate debating chambers and billionaires bellowing at thousands in a stadium, see no need for experts. We are all experts now, just decide what you believe and do a quick Google to find someone who says you’re right. Those with power and money can define who and what is real to suit their agenda or prejudices. That scares me.

I want my house to have been built by experts who knew what they were doing. When I buy it I want an expert solicitor who will check every detail and when the boiler goes wrong I want the Corgi registered, highly trained expert to deal with the gas in my home. If my kids are sick I want expert doctors who have spent years and years training and working in that disease and drugs developed by expert scientists who’ve tested them in every imaginable way.

Because I have no idea how to lay a brick, write a contract or cure a sick a child. I may be an academic scientist, a specialist in my own little field but I don’t have time to learn all those other skills, not to the level that people who spend their lives on them do. I’m too busy getting my kids out of the house on time in the morning, ramming myself into the commuter train, trying to meet my deadlines and get through all the laundry before someone runs out of socks.

You know, that stuff people do in the “real world”, that place I’ve never been.


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