Not ""Mere Technicians""

Scientists are in general a fair, even high-minded bunch, but if one thing brings them down, it is their superior attitude toward a particular group of coworkers, namely technicians and lab assistants. Towards technicians, scientists can often be condescending, even belittling. Let me illustrate with two examples, which would have appeared in the pages of The Scientist but for editorial intervention. The first comes from discussions on the status of postdocs. The character in question was quo

Richard Gallagher
Jun 29, 2003

Scientists are in general a fair, even high-minded bunch, but if one thing brings them down, it is their superior attitude toward a particular group of coworkers, namely technicians and lab assistants. Towards technicians, scientists can often be condescending, even belittling.

Let me illustrate with two examples, which would have appeared in the pages of The Scientist but for editorial intervention. The first comes from discussions on the status of postdocs. The character in question was quoted as saying, "I feel like a glorified technician .... Scratch that, I feel like a technician."

We know what the sentiment is here, but does the point really need to be made by deprecating another group? My impression, and it is only that, is that such imperious posturing towards technicians and lab assistants is rather widespread among younger scientists. Coming from nominally intelligent, highly educated individuals, this is simply unacceptable.

So far, so bad. Worse still is this second quote, which was removed from an interview with an institute president: "Few scientists think of themselves as mere technicians. They are taught to take pride in their work."

Not content with the "mere" sneer, this individual also implies that technicians have no dignity in their labor. And believe it or not, the interview addressed the role of scientists in maintaining ethical standards in the workplace!

From whom does the commonly used phrase "mere technician" originate? The earliest example that I can find is a quote from Marie Curie: "A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician; he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales." Curie, who felt the effects of discrimination as a woman in science, was pointing out that science is more than the application of a set of techniques. She would surely not approve of the remark as a slight against technicians, which is often its current use.

The work of research technicians is not especially glamorous, but it is multifaceted and important. They are often long-term employees who spend their workdays almost exclusively in the lab. Good research technicians are therefore at the heart of the lab group, often socially as well as technically. They usually have specialized and very practical knowledge: They know the optimal set-up and individual characteristics of the equipment and procedures, and they tend to be good at devising solutions to technical problems. This is often combined with a keen ability to interpret new data and develop conclusions. In short, technicians are the unsung heroes of the lab.

So why the negative vibrations? Coming from younger scientists, part of the reason is immaturity. Indeed, Curie's remark that the scientist is like a child can be interpreted in more than one way. And, as an indicator of intellectual insecurity, it is hard to beat someone who hoists himself up by pulling others down. These issues can be addressed by skillful mentoring. There is also great frustration among postdocs at present, well covered in these pages, and one symptom of deep dissatisfaction is a tendency to lash out in all directions.

But issues exist higher up as well. Another institute president, whose quote was retained in the magazine, described postdocs as "glorified technicians." However unintentional, this is tantamount to institutionalized rubbishing of a profession.

There is a need to find more accurate and less offensive ways of describing the problems of science. And a still greater need to appreciate the complementary roles of the research scientist and technician.

Richard Gallagher, Editor
rgallagher@the-scientist.com


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