But in actuality, the public does not view scientists as occupational Rodney Dangerfields, according to the latest findings of a study measuring the prestige of various jobs. The prestige study was included in the General Social Survey, an investigation by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The general survey has been conducted 18 times since 1972 and is funded by the National Science Foundation.
In the as-yet-unpublished study, conducted in 1989 and recently released to the public, a nationally representative sample of 1,166 adults from the United States gave physicists, chemists, and biologists high-prestige rankings--among the highest of the 740 jobs rated.
Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, says the respondents ranked scientists highly because of a perception that scientists' work involves an altruistic pursuit of knowledge that betters society. "Occupations like business executives and manufacturing plant owners rank substantially lower than scientists in prestige because these professions are seen as much more self-serving," Smith says, even though such jobs may be more financially rewarding than scientific professions and may also require advanced education and training.
According to Smith, while the definition of "prestige" is subjective, "there's a robust concept out there of good and bad, important and unimportant professions." Study coauthor Judith Treas, chairwoman of the department of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, agrees. "There's definitions of hierarchy and prestige that everyone understands" in regard to professions, she says.
The 1989 study measuring the perceived prestige of jobs was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine. The prestige study was based on a 1964 benchmark study conducted by investigators at USC. NORC staffers decided to replicate this investigation after 25 years, although the original 1964 study was not part of the General Social Survey.
To find survey respondents, the investigators used a national population sample, randomly selecting communities, neighborhoods, and households. Interviewers visited individual members of randomly selected households in their homes.
Each respondent was first interviewed for 45 minutes for attitudinal and opinion data for the General Social Survey. Then, in the next 15 minutes, respondents were asked to evaluate 110 occupations according to their "prestige." To do this, they sorted 110 small cards bearing selections from the list of 740 occupational titles onto a nine-rung ladder of prestige or social standing, with 1 being the lowest ranking and 9 the highest. Forty titles were the same for all respondents, while a set of 70 additional titles varied.
The prestige ranking for an occupation is the interviewees' mean score when the nine rungs of the prestige ladder are ranked from 0 to 100. A score of 0 means that all respondents rated the occupation at the bottom of the nine-rung ladder, while a score of 100 means that all respondents placed the occupation at the top of the ladder.
The study found that chemists had a prestige score of 73 in 1989, as compared with 69 in 1964. Physicists ranked 74 in both 1989 and 1964, and biologists ranked 73 in 1989 and 68 in 1964. While chemists' and biologists' ratings were higher in the later study than in the earlier one, says Smith, "the variation, because it's so slight, is insignificant."
Ranking lower on the prestige scale were advertising executives (62.5 in 1989 and 59.8 in 1964), businessmen (59.5 in 1989 and 57.7 in 1964), and manufacturing plant owners (67.9 in 1989 and 65.2 in 1964), among other occupations.
According to Smith, there are three major factors that determine a profession's placement in the prestige hierarchy. Two of these factors--the level of training required and the amount of income generated--explain why most highly ranked jobs are well regarded. The third factor--"which explains most of the anomalies," Smith says--is respectability, "the reason why clergymen rank high [67 in 1989 and 69 in 1964] and bartenders rank low [25 in 1989 and 20 in 1964]."
Physicians received an even higher prestige score than scientists, garnering a ranking of 86 in 1989 and 82 in 1964. That doesn't surprise Tony J. Pietrovito, undergraduate coordinator of general chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
"In the past several years, very few of our undergraduate chemistry majors have gone on to study chemistry in graduate school," says Pietrovito, a fact he attributes directly to the perceived prestige and reward of a career as a physician compared to one in science.
While few of Penn's recent undergraduate chemistry majors have gone on to do graduate work in chemistry, most have continued on to medical school.
It's been especially tough to encourage minority students to continue on in science, Pietrovito says, noting that he recently tried, unsuccessfully, to convince two female minority students to pursue careers in research. The students, Pietrovito says, felt that the science world was having a hard enough time recognizing the abilities of women, let alone minorities, and they believed that their struggle for advancement would be too difficult. Today one of these students is at Harvard Medical School and the other is at Yale School of Medicine.
Pietrovito feels that societal pressures, not a lack of exposure to the joys of scientific discovery, are what's pushing students toward medicine and away from science. "I would say our better students come to Penn with a wholesome attitude toward science, and they're exposed to basic science research as undergraduates, but they see what's outside the walls of the university. It's a problem of society rather than one of science."
The allure of medicine notwithstanding, the general population still finds science occupations more deserving of respect than other white-collar jobs, as evidenced by the prestige survey. Respondents recognized that "scientists are well-educated vis-a- vis the rest of the population and are high-paid," says study coauthor Treas. "Science as an institution is highly esteemed in American society."
Lisa Simon is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.