At a Faculty Senate meeting last April, in a discussion about the reorganization of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education position, I said something about the VCRGE working with scientists across campus. One of the Senate members responded immediately, saying that the VCR “needs to serve all faculty, not just scientists.”
That comment surprised me because I thought I was talking about all faculty when I used the word “scientist.” I opened my mouth to argue with him, then realized that the Senate meeting wasn’t the time or place. So I’m going to use this blog to pose the question, “Who is a scientist?”
I have always used the word “scientist” as a reference to academic researchers, not just those in the biological or physical sciences. I admit that this could be because I was trained as an economist; in every economics department where I’ve been active, my colleagues always insisted that they were scientists as much as any physicist or botanist.
I’ve always believed that “scientist” describes a way of looking at the world. What differentiates a tenure-track faculty member or a senior researcher from an informed journalist or interested layperson is that academic researchers are trained to think theoretically. That is, they are trained to bring intellectual frameworks to their exploration of knowledge. They are trained to use evidence to build an argument, often calling upon one or more theoretical frameworks and testing how the evidence supports or does not support the conclusions that a particular theoretical framework would suggest. This may occur in a formalized “scientific method” process inside a laboratory; it may occur through verbal analysis of text; or it may occur by analyzing the results of a participant observation study or a series of focus group conversations. What makes a scientist is not the topic that she or he studies, but the intellectual rigor that the researcher brings to bear upon the question of interest.
Hence, I’ve always believed that an English professor discussing the feminist implications of a medieval manuscript is as much a scientist as the microbiologist analyzing the impact of a particular chemical agent on cell reproduction. What differentiates academic researchers from others who write on similar topics is the intellectual rigor they bring – it is their scientific training in coherent observation and ordered argument that earns them a position at UW, whatever their field. I want to consider all of our faculty and researchers as “scientists.”
But language is used in particular ways that develop meaning over time. I understand that we infrequently apply the term “scientist” to the art historians or musicians on campus, frequently substituting the term “scholar.” I want to use both terms, to emphasize the academic training that our faculty bring to every field of endeavor. But I suspect not everyone will agree with this viewpoint. So I invite you to tell me what term you would use.
If “scientist” is not the right term to refer to our faculty and researchers across all fields, is there another term? I invite you to let me know in the comments section if there is alternative language that you think is better.
So let me know if you think I can continue to refer to English professors as scientists. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “yes.”