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THE YOUNGEST PROFESSION A. S. PARKES* A few years ago I gave a lecture which I called "The Art of Scientific Discovery." My thesis was that discovery, as opposed to investigation, was essentially a matter ofinspiration, which could not be planned, and was therefore an art rather than a science. I pointed out that in these circumstances the scientist engaged in original research should be able to work in conditions conducive to inspiration, should have time and opportunity for meditation, and should not be expected to spend the whole ofhis life in an intellectual steeplechase. I quoted Andrade's remark that "leisure and quiet do not produce a Newton, but without them even a Newton is unlikely to bring to ripeness the fruits ofhis genius." I went on: And here we meet a difficulty. During the last fifty years, scientific research has changed from a vocation to a highly organized profession—a learned profession it is true, but still a profession which offers financial ease andpublic honors to its more successful exponents and a pleasant and comparatively carefree existence to the rest. This change has brought an enormous improvement in the status of the scientist, but in some ways the change has been for the worse. Security is not always a stimulus, and the atmosphere of a busy profession is not conducive to the meditation and personal practice which earlier were characteristic of the scientific life. On the contrary, the scientist, who used to be able to pursue his work in the peaceful academic atmosphere which was the foundation ofhis discoveries, now lives in a whirl of meetings, memoranda , and administration which makes it difficult for him to give consecutive thought to anything. You will notice that I drew a sharp distinction between a vocation and a profession, the former in my mind being something that you live to do, and the latter something that you do to live. In pursuing this matter, I found that the Concise Oxford Dictionary recognizes only three learned professions: divinity, law, and medicine. My thesis is that there is now a fourth learned profession—science—especially scientific research, which, * Physiological Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England. This is one of a collection of lectures by Professor Parkes published October, 1966, by the Oriel Press, Newcastle, under the title Sex, Science and Society. Original drawings for this volume were made by A. G. Wurmser and are reproduced here with his kind permission. 56 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 in contrast to the oldest profession, can reasonably be called the youngest profession. First ofall, why do I say that fifty years ago scientific research was a vocation? Vocation or Profession Up to the time of World War I, the pursuit of science offered few material rewards; men and a very few women were attracted to it by an urge rather than by ambition. Research, in particular, was carried out«s P M^*<*^= A sharp distinction between a vocation and a profession mainly as a spare-time occupation in university departments, or by those with private means, and its exponents worked in poorly equipped laboratories with no expectation ofpublic recognition, being driven on only by scientific curiosity and possibly the hope ofscientific recognition. In 1910, there was no Medical Research Council, no Agricultural Research Council, no Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, no Industrial Research Associations, no Wellcome Trust, no Nuffield Foundation ; for practical purposes, none of the bodies which now supply the main sinews of scientific research existed. There were, of course, jobs in science, especially in universities, and even whole-time research jobs in industry and agriculture. The famous Rothamsted experiments, for in57 stance, had already been going more than sixty years when A. D. Hall wrote of them in 1905. But, by no stretch of imagination could it have been said fifty years ago that science was an organized profession either in status or remuneration. The history ofthe Beit Memorial Fellowships, written to celebrate their Jubilee in 1959, describes the situation thus: "Fifty years ago, ifa young graduate wanted to devote himselfto investigation in medicine or any ofthe medical sciences and keep alive, the path was not by any means easy or assured. There were teaching appointments, in which a man ofenergy and enthusiasm could make time for research, but they were definitely limited. Research scholarships for senior students were few. ... All were eagerly sought after by those who felt their vocations lay in a research life. It is difficult to visualize today the barren conditions for research in medicine fifty years ago." The picture changed radically between the wars, as scientific knowledge increased in all fields and its importance in medicine, agriculture, and industry became recognized. Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of history that it remained for World War II, with its astonishing calls on all forms ofscientific endeavor, really to establish science in the life ofthe nation. As a result ofthe vastly increased recruitment and support, especially from public funds, ofthe last twenty years, the pursuit ofscience in all its aspects, teaching, research, and development, has indeed become a highly organized profession. The Scientist The emergence ofthe scientist into the public eye, much assisted by the advent oftelevision, and the ever increasing impact ofscience on the community , has raised some interesting questions. Is the scientist a blessing or a menace? Should he be held responsible for the effects ofhis discoveries, as put to use by himself or other people? Is he a superman, a thinking machine orjust an ordinary chap taken to a particular profession? Such problems are apt to take unexpected forms. Many people would say that the atomic physicist has brought dangers to the human race far outweighing any benefits which have so far come from his work. Danger from other quarters may be less well recognized. For instance, the continuous development of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides is raising hazards of unknown magnitude. Even the activities of the medical scientist , usually thought of as being entirely beneficent, are at present 58 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 causing population problems ofwhich the outcome may well be war, or famine, or both. As to the scientist himself, the once-popular idea that he was either an absent-minded old gentleman or else a human reasoning machine has long since disappeared. The scientist of today is mostly a fairly ordinary chap, often a very human one, in all the meanings ofthat word. There is, in fact, little connection between scientific ability and wisdom, and scientific training has little effect in private life. The geologist, with his mind geared to a perspective ofmillions ofyears, may still be irritated by having to wait five minutes for a bus; and the ethologist, deeply versed in the springs of behavior, may well be the victim of personal taboos and fetishes. The scientist, like everyone else, is to a large extent a puppet of his psychological and physiological makeup. He is essentially a man, not a machine, and as such is a prey to the ordinary human emotions ofhope, fear, envy, ambition, and the rest which, unless he is careful, are apt to intrude into his assessment ofhimselfand other people. In the last resort, there is no such thing as the disembodied intellect and but few instances of the brain packed in ice. As Hoagland has well said, the human brain is a defensive and offensive organ, developed by evolution to promote survival in the same way as were claws and teeth. Certainly it did not develop for, and is quite unsuited to, the purpose for which scientists are supposed to use it—the objective pursuit of knowledge. It is thus understandable, for instance, that most research workers would prefer to make a discovery themselves, rather than that someone else should do so, though the identity ofthe human instrument is immaterial to the advancement ofknowledge. Human traits in the scientist, however, exercised in moderation, are not an unmixed disaster. Good or outstanding work, for instance, has been known to originate in no higher motive than a desire to disprove someone else's results. The thirst for priority, that scientifically unfortunate but biologically interesting manifestation ofthe competitive spirit and the survival ofthe fittest, may also provide useful driving power. Even the log-rolling, axe-grinding, and petty chicanery which go on all the time are only to be expected in a highly competitive profession. On the other hand, in science, as in other walks of life, human, or should I say inhuman, traits exercised immoderately, especially in the pursuit of power rather than ofknowledge, can lead to near gangsterism, which takes many forms and is surely a disgrace to any profession. 59 All things considered, you will see that I am not one ofthose who subscribe to the view that the scientist is a person of superior wisdom, as opposed to greater knowledge, who could run the world much better than it has ever been run before. Be that as it may, the scientist is now in public life and there to stay; let us hope that he gives to it a much needed transfusion of the objectivity and intellectual honesty which should be associated with the scientific way offife. Certainly, it will be interesting to see whether the growing contact of the scientist with the politician pnnq The thirst for priority and the administrator results in their acquiring his professional habits of mind or in his acquiring theirs. The Biologist The idea ofscience as the youngest ofthe professions applies in varying degrees to all branches ofscience, but it applies especially to the biologist. Sixty years ago, physics, chemistry, and mathematics were thought ofas being quite decent and even useful, but biology was definitely not quite nice and might even be wicked. To some extent this prejudice still persists , especially in relation to sex; even today, I know intelligent and educated men-of-the-world who greet biologists with an odd look. 60 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 The biologist, then, is not only subject, like everyone else, to his own primitive emotions, but working with living material, he is more likely to be exposed to external social, moral, or political pressures than are other scientists. The mathematician, endlessly expanding an equation, and the physicist exploring the nature ofmatter, are not likely to run up against their own or other people's conditioning—or were not until the advent of the atomic bomb. The biologist is very likely to do so. This attitude of mind is seen especially in the field ofhuman biology. This is unfortunate, Even now, there are educated men-of-the-world who greet biologists with an odd look because man is the most interesting as well as the most important ofthe animals to which the biologist has access. Obscurantism reaches its most extreme and most dangerous manifestations in the case ofhuman reproduction , and sometimes in unexpected quarters, as witness the extraordinary incident of the B.M.A. refusing a few years ago to publish, as an advertisement in Family Doctor, a list of the clinics run by the Family Planning Association. On a global scale, the World Health Organization for many years allowed the religious dogma of certain of its member states to prevent the giving of desperately needed assistance in fertility control to other member states who did not share the dogmas in question.1 1 In revising this script, I have happily been able to put this sentence about W.H.O. in the past tense. 61 W.H.O.'s policy ofdeath control, but no birth'control, provided a staggering example of the neglect of elementary biological principles, as do the so-called natural laws promulgated by ecclesiastics without knowledge ofbiology. The biologist, especially the human biologist, therefore, subject to internaland externalpressures, needsa morematureandmoreindependent mind than his colleagues in other disciplines. He must be more objective and better able to recognize for what they are his primitive emotions and the effects ofhis childhood conditioning. He must, in short, be a highly evolved person. Very often he is. To take extreme cases, it is difficult to be certain that evidence relating to a method ofabolishing old age, or of resurrecting the dead, or oftelepathic communication, or ofcross-breeding men and apes, would receive fair and impartial scrutiny from even the professional biologist, but the biologist would probably come nearer to it than other kinds ofscientists. I do not know ofan instance ofa foremost biologist having been hoodwinked by spiritualists; at least two very distinguished physicists appear to have suffered this fate. Because ofthe special qualities required by its exponents, biology, especially human biology, has flowered later in man's existence. What Isaac Newton did for physical science was not done for biological science until two centuries later by Charles Darwin. This phylogenetic principle also appears in ontogeny. Biology, especially experimental biology and human biology, being the more difficult discipline, demands wider background knowledge and longer study, so that the qualities required flower later, not only in the history ofthe species , but also in the life ofthe individual; there is no such thing as the infant prodigy in biology. Writing to Lyell in 1859, Darwin said: "I suppose that I am a very slow thinker, for you would be surprised at the number ofyears it took me to see clearly some ofthe problems which had to be solved"; and the Origin of Species, the first and greatest of his major works, appeared when he was fifty. The same tendency is seen today. In a previous lecture, I recalled A. V. Hill's figures showing that in the 1920's and 1930's, the peak age ofelection to the Royal Society for mathematicians and physicists corresponded to a working life far shorter than that required by the biologists. The cynic can suggest many reasons for this difference, and at best there is no 62 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 absolute standard by which scientific achievement can be judged. Even withinthe biological sciences, onwhat basis is oneto comparetheachievements of, say, a biochemist anda social anthropologist? Between thephysical and biological sciences, the difficulty ofequating worth is almost insuperable . But ifwe assume that in the long run some sort ofroughjustice is done, even ifat times it is very rough, A. V. Hill's analysis must mean that the qualities necessary for the biologist mature later than those required by his colleagures in the other sciences. This fact has a bearing on the problems and consequences arising from the transition of scientific research into a learned profession and its enormous expansion in recent years. Problems and Consequences Even when science was a vocation, scientists were ofmany kinds, good, medium, and mediocre. It is not likely that this state of affairs will be changed by the advent ofthose attracted to science by the better material prospects and the postwar recruiting campaign. On the contrary, the world of scientific research now includes some, at least, who have no particular urge toward science and possibly no particular aptitude, but choose it as a career in the same way as they might choose to go into the civil service, the law, business, or even the Church. It has, in fact, been suggested that the great increase in scientific manpower during recent years will not mean a corresponding increase in the number ofoutstanding scientists, potential Nobel prize winners, for instance. It can be argued that most ofthose with a compelling urge and outstanding ability found theirway into science even inits lean days. This dilution oflabor, however, if such it is, has been necessary to fill the jobs which the ever increasing calls on science have brought into being, and it is entirely appropriate. Modern scientific and technological research has many facets and much routine work, and a great range of talent is required. This in itselfraises many problems, especially in research establishments. The harmonious integration ofa very mixed population is not the only headache. What is to be done with aging scientists who have lost, or are losing, their capacity for original work, a problem which is going to become increasingly acute? Presumably the scientist has shared the increasing expectation oflife over the last half-century, but the expansion during the last twenty years, based onthe recruitment ofyoung people, hasbuttressed 63 the age structure and prevented the scientific world from becoming topheavy . This correcting factor, however, is not likely to operate indefinitely ; what will happen when the average age ofscientists begins to rise and an increasing proportion outlive their powers of original thought? In science teaching, where experience and know-how count for much, this may not be a bad thing, but in full-time research the effect will be serious. The eager questing mind so necessary for research is found far more often in young people than in old ones. Moreover, the sense of urgency so necessary to push forward research in the face ofinevitable difficulties is, oddly enough, found far more often in young people, with their lives in front ofthem, than in elderly people for whom time is a wasting asset which should be used to the full. Young people tend to think that research started recently and, more correctly, that the world of science is their oyster; many old people feel that research finished with their heyday and now does not matter much. Reasons are not difficult to find. Partly, with increasing age, the physical basis ofdrive and initiative deteriorates in the individual, but more often the hardening is ofthe mind rather than ofthe arteries. A few specially gifted individuals retain freshness and alertness of mind throughout a long life; but very few. For most ofus, many years of work in one field make it almost impossible to retain a fresh and forwardlooking attitude. One's views are dominated by things that happened years ago; one is burdened by a mass of out-of-date information which, because ofits personal context, appears unduly important. As a result, new ideas and developments are received with indifference, if not actually resisted . Yet, the know-how and research instinct acquired during a lifetime in the laboratory are invaluable, especially in biological work. How then to combine experience with freshness of outlook? The answer may be with the administrator, the psychologist, or even with the endocrinologist , but an answer must be found against the time when the intake of young people into science stabilizes and the proportion of older people necessarily begins to increase. Preferably, the aging scientist should recognize the problem for himselfand should remember to take stock ofhis position from time to time and try to see himselfas others see him. He may find his own answer. He may be able, gradually or abruptly, to transfer his attention to a field of work sufficiently different to give him the open-mindedness and interest induced by unfamiliarity, but sufficiently similar for his accumulated 64 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn ic, experience to be relevant and valuable. Such a transition is not as easy as might be thought because the vast body of technical knowledge which now hedges in almost every subject makes it difficult to avoid a long apprenticeship . But it is possible. It may take place by design, in the sense that a research worker who feels that he is losing ability to open up new vistas for himself may find satisfaction and a useful outlet by taking on ad hoc problems arising in connection with other projects. Or it may happen by chance, in the sense that some lucky break may open up a field new How to combine experience with freshness ofoutlook and refreshing to him. Even now, as Trotter once said, nuggets of discovery are still lying about on the surface waiting for those who are not encumbered with heavy mining machinery and can still see the woods in spite of the trees. Other old-timers may occupy themselves in scientific administration, service on committees, editorial work, and other essentials ofmodern science. A few are able to take up university appointments, but for the most part, lack of teaching experience and limitation of subject make entry or even return to university teaching difficult for middleaged research workers. This is unfortunate. Much in their laboratory experience would be useful to students, especially postgraduates; and contact 65 with the younger generation in bulk would certainly refresh the institutional troglodyte. Such interchange would also facilitate greatly the recruitment of young scientists to research establishments which in this respect are at a natural disadvantage compared with university departments through which the young people are passing. With these problems in mind, it is sometimes suggested that full-time research appointments should terminate at forty-five or fifty years of age in favor of university ones. This may be impracticable, but certainly one could wish to see much greater contact between universities and research establishments. It is greatly to be hoped that this will come about. These are some ofthe problems facing science today. There are many others. What to do about the ever increasing literature which is causing almost every library in the world to bulge at the seams? How to improve the interchange of information and cut down duplication of effort, and so on, and so on. Possibly the most serious question facing us today is how, in the glare ofpublicity, are we going to remain scientists, first, last, and all the time? How are we going to avoid becoming administrators, politicians, operators, actors, empire-builders, and even worse things? How are we going to avoid becoming mere pawns in national and international power politics? I do not know, but at least let us strive to see that, although science has become a profession, it remains also a vocation and a way oflife. references D. P. Earle. J. Lab. Clin. Med., 67:6, 1966. A. D. Hall. The book of the Rothamsted experiments. London: John Murray, 1905. DwightJ. Ingle. Principles of research in biology and medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott , 1958. A. S. Parkes. Perspect. Biol. Med., 1 ¡366, 1958. 66 A. S. Parkes · The Youngest Profession Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 ...

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1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 56-66
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
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