Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Gentleman Scientist

I was watching a film about Charles Darwin the other night and later began thinking about these early naturalist explorers. Many of them were able to pursue their interests in nature and science because they came from wealthy families, which allowed them the freedom from having to work (and deal with grant writing). Darwin is a classic example. His father was a wealthy physician, and his wife’s father was a wealthy industrialist. The voyage he took on the Beagle (1831-1836) was underwritten by his father (after Darwin’s father-in-law helped convince the family that Darwin should go).

Imagine spending five years sailing around the world, stopping in the Galapagos and other exotic places studying the geology and viewing and collecting fossils as well as modern animals and plants. Darwin later spent years at his home in England writing “On the Origin of Species” and other works. His father organized his investments, and the resultant income enabled his son to be a “self-funded gentleman scientist”. Darwin even referred to his work on the theory of natural selection as his “prime hobby”.

The term, “gentleman scientist” was coined in post-Renaissance Europe as “a financially independent scientist who pursues scientific study as a hobby”. There were many advantages to this self-funded pursuit: control over research direction, ability to avoid administrative duties, teaching, writing proposals, and peer review. Sounds pretty good to me.

Although self-funded science declined in the 20th century, there are modern-day equivalents such as Craig Venter (human genome), Stephen Wolfram (Mathematica software), and James Lovelock (futurist). An interesting article about self-funded scientists can be read in Science Magazine here.

I imagine that most scientists, if given the opportunity of financial independence, would continue to do their research. I know I would. I can only imagine the freedom and the extra time one would have. The fields of science and technology might even benefit from the fact that scientists are freed from the time sink of grant proposal writing, teaching, dealing with administrators, paperwork, and other non-science tasks. An example: Peter Mitchell who funded his own somewhat radical research later won a Nobel prize in chemistry. Craig Venter is another example who advocated radical approaches to sequencing genomes that angered the main-stream researchers and NIH. He made himself a multi-millionaire, created several institutes and businesses, and eventually sequenced the human genome.

Are there comparable “gentlewoman scientists”? See next post.

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