A career scientist has to deal with a number of issues. These include some topics that we encounter on a routine basis during lunch discussions with our colleagues, such as career progression, the feeling that research advances are moving ahead so quickly that we are being left behind, and whether we really get the respect we deserve (or want).


Making the ‘glass ceiling’ more permeable

The term ‘glass ceiling’ refers to the notion that the advancement of women, in particular, is limited in some organizations because of subtle or overt discrimination. A recent study on the pay and promotion history of over 7000 scientists from the University of East Anglia School of Economics in the UK confirmed previous studies that women in science suffer pay discrimination and are less likely to be promoted than male colleagues [1]. The worst offenders are universities. The study normalized for seniority, career breaks, age, and years of experience and concluded that roughly one quarter of the pay gap was the result of discrimination.

In my experience, the cause is often down to the ‘homophily’ or ‘love of the same’ that sociologists use to explain our relatively homogeneous social and professional networks. As the number of females in top positions increases, one would expect the old barriers of males promoting other males of similar backgrounds to begin crumbling faster. Don't expect too much outcry from male scientists – we are mute by female standards, with around 7000 communication events (words, gestures) per day compared with about 20?000 for women [2].

Don't you hate it when buildings and roads are smarter than you are?

There has been a flurry of recent news stories on improved materials and design for roads and buildings. Small additions of steel or carbon fibers to achieve electrically conductive concrete (about 6 × 106 m3 of concrete are produced each year, making it the second most used material on earth after water [3]) are being used to create self-warming roads that are free of snow and ice. When used in buildings, it may also allow embedding of sensors for security, lighting, and load-sensing applications. Nissan has introduced a dense new elastic resin that has properties similar to wet glue and can reflow in sunlight or warm water to fill in nicks and scratches. Each step we take generates 3–5 W of vibrational energy. If even a fraction of this can be harvested by hydraulic generators in busy areas, some of the returned energy could be used for lighting applications, according to London-based architecture firm, The Facility [4]. The same basic idea of harvesting ambient vibrations, solar or radio-frequency energy is behind the interest in self-powered nanosensors capable of operating in remote locations. It gives a whole new meaning to that old song by The Police: “Every step you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you!”.

We waste too much time on actually getting results!

Materials scientists don't have enough out-of-the-mainstream stuff that people can gossip about at the water cooler, leading to our relatively low profile.

Physicists have teleportation and the search for extraterrestrials (a 2003 Harvard study found that seven out of ten people who claimed to have been abducted stated they had been used for breeding or experimentation of a sexual nature [5]). Chemists have super-heavy elements (the latest, ununoctium or Element 118 lasts for a stupendous millisecond before decaying [6]). Medical biologists are constantly feeding mice the equivalent of a million times the daily intake of something or other, which then causes an early death. This is followed by dire warnings for the human consequences (don't inhale those nanoparticles!). Even mathematicians have their unsolved conjectures and theorems, which are occasionally solved by reclusive Russians living with their mothers who refuse to accept prizes. Astronomers can't even decide how many planets there are – leave Pluto alone! ‘My Very Earnest Man Just Showed Us Nine Planets’ is one of the few things I remember from school. And they can't account for 80% of the mass of the Universe [7] – whoops! Anthropologists have icons like Bigfoot, an enduring legend of a gigantic hairy monster reported in various parts of the US. There was a recent Bigfoot symposium hosted by Idaho State University where, unfortunately, the mythical beast failed to make an appearance. Airport security being what it is these days makes travel difficult.

What can we do to attract some buzz? Well, the Journal of Spurious Correlations is devoted to publishing manuscripts containing negative results [2]. Sometimes there may be value in this, to save people pursuing unproductive areas of research already studied and discarded by others. But think of the headlines – ‘Materials scientists fail to turn carbon into diamond but say it's just a matter of time (and temperature and pressure)’.

Further reading
[1] The Economist (2006), p. 75
[2] The 6th Annual Year in Ideas, The New York Times Magazine, (2006), 38
[3] The Economist Technology Quarterly (2006), p. 32
[4] The 6th Annual Year in Ideas, The New York Times Magazine, (2006), 54
[5] Discover Magazine (2007), p. 80
[6] The Year in Science, Discover Magazine (2007), p. 64
[7]The Year in Science, Discover Magazine (2007), p. 25, p. 038101



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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70059-7