I love science and engineering, which is why I’m in grad school for biomedical engineering. I have to admit, though, science can get boring sometimes. As awe-inspiring as science can be, scientists have some bad habits. As much as I try to avoid them, I’m guilty of having them too. I think the key to fixing them lies in a great 20-minute TED talk I saw recently. In this talk, Simon Sinek explains the difference between normal people/organizations and those who find themselves in positions of leadership. He frames his argument using the idea of the “golden circle”:
Sinek explains that most individuals and organizations are stuck at the “What” or “How” level, and usually work from outside to inside the circle. Meanwhile, successful organizations like Apple and individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. begin at the “Why” and work from inside to outside the circle.
The reason the latter group has so much success, Sinek says, is because people identify with the “Why”. He cleverly points out that MLK Jr. didn’t rally support by saying “I have a plan“, but rather by saying, “I have a dream“; Apple doesn’t say “we make great computers”, but rather, “we challenge the status quo and think differently about how we can live and be happy.” Such sentiments are things people can relate to more than a banal 12-step program for change or a list of technical specs for a computer.
I bring this up because in all the time I’ve spent in science and engineering, sometimes the field seems to get lost in the “What”. This is dangerous because that’s when things get pedantic. I’ve been to so many talks that describe some sophisticated new technology; to my chagrin, I often leave such talks still having the question, “so what? What can I do with this technology?” This is a common theme I’m seeing across labs I’ve worked in, science classes I’ve taken, and scientific talks I’ve attended. Additionally, some scientists are so focused on publishing papers. As a result, the applications of their work are mere afterthoughts.
Perhaps this is just the nature of research and development, as experiments often need to be run ad infinitum, slightly varying conditions each time for the most comprehensive results. Because of the volume of experiments performed, scientists get lost in the “What”. So when they talk about it to other people, they may omit their work’s context or applications simply out of habit, or even because they’ve begun to focus so much on making the experiment work instead of the original problem they were trying to solve. This is a bad habit that us scientists and engineers must drop, however, otherwise we risk becoming too pedantic! We should always strive to describe and think about our work in terms of the “Why” that drives it in the first place.
I’ve had conversations about this topic with my classmates before, and a lot of people feel this way. If you’re in science or engineering, what’s your experience with this? Do you think it’s hard for scientists to focus on the “Why” just because of the nature of science itself? Do we have the capacity to approach it differently?