Finding a Niche and Staying There

KNOWING EVERYTHING ABOUT NOTHING Specialization and Change In Scientific Careers. John Ziman. Cambridge University Press, New York 1987. 196 pp. $29.95. The title of this book and the reputation of its author led me to hope for an insightful analysis of how the ever-increasing specialization of research has shaped modern science. What would 19th-century giants such as Helmholtz think of a scientific enterprise that generated half a million research papers per year, most of which are largely u

Jan 25, 1988
Robert Key Dismukes
KNOWING
EVERYTHING ABOUT
NOTHING

Specialization and Change In Scientific Careers. John Ziman. Cambridge University Press, New York 1987. 196 pp. $29.95.

The title of this book and the reputation of its author led me to hope for an insightful analysis of how the ever-increasing specialization of research has shaped modern science. What would 19th-century giants such as Helmholtz think of a scientific enterprise that generated half a million research papers per year, most of which are largely unreadable to scientists not working on the same problem?

Knowing Everything About Nothing, however, is a much more limited book. It is based on a study of specialization in scientific careers commissioned in 1981 by the British Science Research Council. John Ziman discusses in rather dry detail the many factors that determine the character of careers, based on interviews with scientists exploring why they seemed so rigidly specialized and resistant to change. The discussion doesn’t add much to what most scientists know from personal experience, but might be more of interest to sociologists of science.

American scientists may be puzzled by the questions, since U.S. basic research is supported primarily by grants to university scientists. Even when that research is intended to further purely social goals the scientists largely define their own topics, as long as support can be obtained.

The question is more relevant to industrial and government labs, but scientists who work there expect to compromise self-direction with management’s need to see practical results in the near future. The nature of research in the British organizations under study is not made clear, but the interviews included scientists whose work ranges from at least fairly basic to clearly applied. It would not be surprising to encounter resistance if scientists previously working under academic-style models were abruptly told what topics to address.

Zinman uses the interviews as a springboard for his own analysis of specialization and how scientists move among research topics. He touches on a wide range of topics, including limits to versatility, motivation and attitudes of scientists, career changes, and grade structures for scientific officers in British establishments. His description is accurate, though diffuse, and contains little to surprise either scientists or R&D managers.

I was surprised, however, by Ziman’s lack of attention to differences in attitudes among scientists as a function of where they work and what type of research they conduct. We expect scientists doing fundamental research to correlate careers with research topics rather than with employers. Applied scientists, however, must sacrifice some independence and be versatile problem-solvers, addressing the short-to-medium range concerns of their organizations.

Problems arise when scientists and R&D managers disagree on where to work in the spectrum of basic to applied research, when scientists take up applied work secretly preferring basic research, and when R&D managers fail to balance the needs for focus and self-direction. Part of the problem may be university basic science departments that convey to students a monolithic view of how science is practiced.

Dismukes is director of life sciences at the Air Force Office of
Scientific Research, Bolling Air
Force Base, DC 20332.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.19, January 25, 1988)
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