Heroes, sportspeople and scientists

This week, Mia Freedman managed to cause public outrage by arguing, a day after Cadel Evans won the Tour de France, that sportspeople aren’t heroes. If you haven’t seen it, you can check out her original post here, or else an updated response here. From a personal perspective, I’m a cycling fan, so I was delighted when Evans won. I’m not going explain why I love cycling, because Kimberley Ramplin has already done an excellent job of it.

I also understand that not everyone feels the same way about cycling or any sport, and I believe that Freedman in no way deserved the vicious attacks she received. However, one thing is still bugging me about the whole “unsung heroes” argument: not everyone working in a field where these unsung heroes are found is motivated by pure altruism, and not everyone wants to receive public acknowledgement.

I’ve had a few cases in my time as a scientist where I have received praise for my work. The first case was just before my honours year, when I received a Cancer Council summer vacation scholarship to do some data monkey work for a prostate cancer research project. At the end of the summer, I was invited to a Cancer Council lunch where I was presented with a certificate. It was a good lunch, and nice to meet some of the people who were donors to the Cancer Council and therefore funding the kind of research I was doing. One of them told me something along the lines of “you’re an amazing person, doing what you’re doing, working to fight cancer. We need more people like you.” I accepted the praise as graciously as I could, because it is always a good feeling to be told that your existence is making the world a better place. However, I simultaneously felt a little awkward, because my motivation to take up the scholarship wasn’t an altruistic desire to “cure cancer.” I was motivated by the desire to get some experience working in medical physics and the usefulness of the money the scholarship provided.

My second exposure to this kind of praise was after I won an ARCNN Overseas Travel Fellowship to travel to the USA to work with my international collaborators on my PhD project. My work was written up in a few community newspapers and on the Science Network of WA website. It was an interesting experience at the time, but my real awkwardness came later, in April of this year, when I was writing about the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign. Someone had left a comment at the bottom of the Science Network post, in which they said “I think Ms Tyler is a fantastic person, excellent student and a hero. I wish the world had more people like her trying to help others.” I was flattered, but that the same time I felt really guilty, because at the end of 2010 I left research for the public service. I was no longer spending my days endeavouring to develop a treatment for retinal detachment. As I’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t because I no longer loved science, it was because I didn’t feel I had the necessary toughness to survive in academia any longer.

Which I suppose brings me to my real point. As a scientist, and a supposedly “unsung hero,” the praise is good, but funding is better. If you really believe that the work of scientists (and nurses, firefighters etc.) is a worthy cause, then don’t just complain that they don’t receive the same praise as sportspeople. Get out there and campaign for more funds. For sure, some publicity about our work may help us build public support, but unsung heroes need money too.

UPDATE: I want to add a quick comment because after reading this post through again it feels a little disconnected. Firstly, this post isn’t really about Mia Freedman’s comments at all, but I suppose I started with that because that’s what got me thinking about this whole thing in the first place. Secondly, while I admit that receiving praise is nice, it was never my motivation for becoming a scientist or choosing the fields I did, which is what I’m really getting at when I talk about not necessarily wanting public acknowledgement.

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One Response to Heroes, sportspeople and scientists

  1. Keith says:

    Yes indeed. When praised for one’s work I find it hard to escape an attitude of “Oh it’s nothing, but a trifle, just doing my job.”.

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