Woods Hole — Seeing the Forest and the Trees

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Woods Hole — Seeing the Forest and the Trees

By J.V. & A.R.

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 5, November 1971, p. 8-10

Woods Hole, Massachusetts is known for its scientific facilities—the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), and the Fisheries. Every summer these institutes play host to many young people from elementary school pupils to graduate students who study and work at the laboratories along with many well known scientists.

This summer a series of lectures on science and politics was held at MBL. A few of the young people who attended them, as well as their older colleagues, came away feeling that no real alternatives were offered. Therefore, they invited some of the Boston SESPA people to Woods Hole to meet with them. It was decided that even though the summer was drawing to a close, it might be appropriate to put out a newsletter. Hopefully, this would provide a precedent for future years and would “bring together people who have ideas to share, and the desire to put ideas into action.”

This initial bulletin, People and Science, contained four articles. One was a preface explaining reasons for putting out the newsletter. Another dealt with unemployment among scientists. Of the two remaining pieces, one was by a high school student and future scientist, and the other was an interview with a secretary and a technician. Since these latter two represent refreshing view-points not often seen in Science for the People, we decided to reprint them in their entirety.

The interview below was conducted by one of us with two staff members from institutions in Woods Hole. At the request of those interviewed we have used fictitious names and have avoided specific institutional references. One, Carol, is in her late twenties and the other, John, is in his early twenties. Both have worked in the Woods Hole community a little over a year. Carol has worked as a secretary, and John as a lab technician. We asked them to discuss their view of how science was practiced, particularly as it affected the structure of scientific instiutions and labs, hiring practices, job efficiency, etc.

Carol: When I came to Woods Hole, I started applying at WHOI, MBL, and the Fisheries. I was told the starting salary of a secretary full-time was about $3700 annually. I said I could not live on that, you know that is ridiculous. Another person in the drafting department at WHOI said the same thing, and was told that part of the pay compensation was the distinction of living in Woods Hole and being able to work at a prestigious institution ….

John: What bullshit!

Carol: There seems to be a sharp distinction between personnel and the scientific set where I work. At WHOI I’ve been told this also happens…. In terms of the scientific set it all comes down to a lack of communication between people who have become so specialized they forget what’s going on elsewhere. There is a definite need for more communication between scientists and non-scientists if just to show that these people are interested in other things than their own ‘big’ projects. But that all involves time.

John: There is a more basic problem of too much competition between research teams. Half the time one team will not tell another the results they are getting so they can publish it first, which is against the whole idea of science. Or, one simply goes to a seminar to try to cut the speaker with any little bullshit question, whether it is pertinent or not, to try to make the speaker look bad, and therefore himself look good. If all the scientists would decide to have some ethics this would stop.

We then asked Carol and John about the differences in treatment of staff and scientists.

Carol: I think it is [also] a matter of personal liberation. For instance, I, a secretary, was hired to type, and that’s all I’m allowed to do. I was confmed to that completely. If I went off to try and learn about plankton in the lab, I was called and told I should be sitting at my desk even if I had nothing to type. Many times we made ourselves look busy rearranging files in a difficult order, just to make ourselves important, so that no one else could possibly find anything in those files. I’ve been through that before. And retyping something three or four times simply because I was supposed to be looking busy when there was nothing else to do. Why shouldn’t I be learning something on this job?

John: Now as a technician, not necessarily with any more education than the secretaries, I can wander around the lab and pop in on people and find out what they are doing.

Carol: I was not allowed to go to lectures and I was docked in pay if I went; nor was I allowed to take any time off without being docked. So, if I wanted to go to a lecture, I would say, “I’m going out, and I will have to take a ‘leave’.”

A friend of Carol’s from Boston, named Doug, was also present and challenged the point that scientists should take time to teach technicians and secretaries technical aspects of their work. He said it would be disturbing if secretaries came in all the time and demanded, “I want to know. It’s my job to know.”

John: It’s also the researcher’s job to teach. If a researcher is thore just to le!trn it himself and pass it on to a few other specialists, then I don’t think he should be there. What use is the guy if he is only going to talk to other Ph.Ds? He is not living up to his potential, because the role of the scientist doing research is to find out and then spread the information. I think it’s better if all the people, including secretaries and janitors have some idea of what is going on. If nothing else it gives them pride in the organization. It makes a big difference; instead of being impersonal, typing on a machine, or pushing a broom down the hall, they can come in and ask what is going on.

J.V.

 

Martha was the star of every science class she was ever in, including seven summers at the Childrens’ School of Science in Woods Hole. She was doing well as a botany major at a woman’s college, when suddenly she dropped out. Now Martha shares her knowledge of botany with other members of an organic farm in Vermont.

Elroy had worked at the MBL for the last few summers, first as a dishwasher and eventually as a lab assistant and technician. He had planned since childhood on becoming a neurosurgeon. However, shocked by the competitiveness of the pre-med program at his college, and disgusted with the pressures put upon him by the draft, he fled to Canada, where he lives doing odd jobs.

Sound familiar? In the last few years there have been many young people from the Woods Hole summer community who appeared to be thriving on an intellectual background only to be suddenly turned off by science and in some cases by society as a whole. The reasons these kids drop out of intellectual environments are complicated and differ somewhat from person to person. Because of my own background, I have been able to see something of what science is all about and what has made many of my friends, and perhaps even myself, think about seeking other types of work. I have spent eight summers in woods Hole, six of them at the Science School and the last two as a worker at the MBL. In September I will enter the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman. At times I am very excited about scientific research or medicine. But I am also very scared of what I see as the inborn weaknesses in those careers. I can’t accept that it’s all up to me to conform to what science demands. The scientific world can and must change not only to attract young people into it, but also to serve people in a socially useful way. What is it about science as it is now practiced that has turned so many people off?

One does not have to be a private detective or a psychoanalyst to see that many scientists seem to care and think more about their work than about people or political issues. That is not to say that scientists don’t espouse radical or liberal ideologies. Woods Hole, in the summer of 1968 was “McCarthy Country” and from the number of bumper stickers one would have thought that the nomination was assured. (Apparently it wasn’t.) Yet, how many of you scientists continued to work on political issues at home or nationally much beyond that time? How many of you have continued to espouse an ‘interest’ in ending the Vietnam war, but have not had time to work against it? Scientists, like all people, should be an important political force in their country. They haven’t come near their potential even in issues, like pollution, where they might have some special expertise!

Another problem which I see is the lack of concern which many scientists seem to display for people. Even in the informal atmosphere of Woods Hole silly and formal guidelines shape the relationships of people in the laboratory or the classroom. The usual professor student-technician relationship does not represent a give and-take situation. How many professors run out to buy their secretaries or technicians coffee?

Still another problem I would like to point out is the common observation of many of my friends that there simply is not enough time for most people to do a science curriculum and still have time left to spend on other broadening experiences. Yet isn’t it too bad people cannot do both? Perhaps spending time on personal education, including political action should be considered as much a part of becoming a good person, as spending time in the lab is considered a part of becoming a good scientist.

One serious problem with science is its elitism. Scientists do have special technical knowledge; but instead of using that knowledge to work together with other people in other fields, they seem to use it as a screen from the people at large. They seem to allow that special knowledge to give them a sense of special privilege with respect to others. Scientists have lots to learn from others, too. Isn’t it time for people to start breaking down these barriers which isolate them?

One of the worst aspects of science that scares a lot of young people is its competitiveness. In high schools, chemistry, physics, and calculus are destructively used as dividing instruments to separate the ‘smart’ from the ‘dumb’. How could these subjects avoid losing their inherent interest in that context? In some Universities over 50% of the freshman classes start out as pre-meds, only to fmd that only about a third of them will be admitted to medical school. Exposure to this kind of atmosphere for a period of years leaves its personality effects on students. Some science instructors claim they can pick out the pre-med students in their classes simply by their obnoxious behavior. One has to wonder what kind of doctors they will become.

You may not like or agree with the sentiments I have expressed here. You may feel that much of what I have said is one-sided or simplistic. You may be right. I’m still new at this. But darnmit, you’d better care about the original question of why so many young people are turning away from science and the rest of society. Not only are you losing the services of some people who might have made significant contributions but their disenchantment might indicate that there is something seriously wrong with both.

A.R.

>>  Back to Vol. 3, No. 5  <<