In discussions of the larger societal implications of scientific findings, the question of who is a scientist is frequently asked. I've talked with with creationists who invoke the authority of someone who has a PhD in a scientific discipline and happens to share their belief of supernatural origins, as a scientific authority. Does the fact that I have a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology make me scientist or is being scientist something more?
This is an important question. It goes to the core of whose authority we believe for public discussion of such issues as climate change, evolution, risks of vaccines, and so on. Regardless of how we define 'scientist', a scientist participates in science by publishing peer-reviewed research articles in scientific publications. This notion of who is a scientist has been enjoyably stretched by the publication of a paper in Biology Letters by a group of elementary school children from Blackawton, UK. In consultation with a academic scientist and under the supervision of teachers, 25 8-10 year olds devised and carried out an experiment on bee visual perception and behavior, and wrote up their results into a publishable manuscript.
The students trained bees by offering them nectar rewards in different color containers. They then allowed these trained bees to forage in multicolored arenas and they conclusively show that the bees unambiguously select the colored containers they were trained on. Bess learn and adapt their behavior based on previous experience.
Publishing a paper by a group of children may sound like a gimmick, but the study is very interesting. The commentary from the journal says it best: "The children's findings show that bees are able to alter their foraging behaviour based on previously learned colours and pattern cues in a complex scene consisting of a (local) pattern within a larger (global) pattern . As there has been little testing of bees learning colour patterns at small and large scales, the results can add considerably to our understanding of insect behaviour."
The paper is extremely enjoyable to read and will have you chuckling to yourself. Sincerity pours from the words and I was left wondering if I could have reasoned so well at that age. The children develop hypotheses using information available to them, such as watching Dave Letterman's 'Stupid Dog Tricks'. Reading this article made me realize why I love being scientist. The students note that "This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before" and because they were given the opportunity to carryout this study they "also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before". Too true. I could not have said it better myself.
Being scientist can mean a lot of things, it can mean knowledge (which the Latin origin, Scientia means), it can mean training and acquired skills, but at its core, being a scientist means conducting research, testing hypotheses and writing publications that are deemed acceptable by other scientists. Therefore the children of Blackawton are scientists, I am a scientist.
Blackawton, P., Airzee, S., Allen, A., Baker, S., Berrow, A., Blair, C., Churchill, M., Coles, J., Cumming, R., Fraquelli, L., Hackford, C., Hinton Mellor, A., Hutchcroft, M., Ireland, B., Jewsbury, D., Littlejohns, A., Littlejohns, G., Lotto, M., McKeown, J., O'Toole, A., Richards, H., Robbins-Davey, L., Roblyn, S., Rodwell-Lynn, H., Schenck, D., Springer, J., Wishy, A., Rodwell-Lynn, T., Strudwick, D., & Lotto, R. (2010). Blackawton bees Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056