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Box-checking and deadlines are important, but are they "Science"?

If there was any doubt whether I’m middle-aged, I am, in fact, past middle age, as I will turn 40 in December. The average life expectancy for a 39-year-old male in the United States is 37.85 years per the Social Security Administration actuary tables. the kids started school last month and it has been one back-in-my-day moment after another ever since.

This is the most recent one: the eldest has started 6th grade, which in the US is considered Middle School, and is apparently a big deal because that is when they start getting actual grades. Now, back in my day and — this is probably the more relevant fact — in Serbia, you started getting properly graded scored The unfortunate characteristic of the American school system is that it uses the term “grade” for too many distinct but adjacent concepts, so I will stick to “grade” for the yearly cohort of kids, and use “score” for the number they get on assignments and at the end of each year. in 1st grade: there was none of this descriptive assessment shenanigans. It was also probably the reason why the teachers were so interested in what your parents did for a living. But this is not a tirade against descriptive scoring; I had that moment 5 years ago at our first encounter with the 1st grade. The 6th grade b-i-m-d moment was that the scoring is performed nearly real-time, is viewable by both parents and children via an online portal, and — this is what got me — includes whether you:

  1. wrote your full name instead of only the first name on a line that says just “Name”;
  2. checked all of the boxes on an end-of-class exit form, regardless of whether you performed the tasks outlined next to those boxes;
  3. turned in your field trip forms on time.

This is all incorporated into your Science class score. Science. Class. Score.

Now, if the main goal in your life as a scientist is to apply to as many NIH grants as possible and perhaps even win some of them, then yes, science is mostly about box-checking and meeting deadlines. But if you want to call these endeavors “science”, I encourage you to scroll through Adam Mastroianni’s newsletter Experimental History and check your beliefs against some persuasive evidence that science is, in fact, the complete opposite of checking boxes and worrying about the next deadline, and that part of the reason it is stagnating (well, some sciences more than others) and that younger generations are more interested in becoming influencers, content creators, crypto millionaires or whatnot is that they have this misshapen idea about what science actually is from the backwards way it is being presented to them.

With good intent, I should add! There absolutely should be a way to encourage tweens, teens, and adolescents to be more responsible and contentious and middle school is as good of an age to start as any. Heck, there is even a ready-made textbook for it. But call it “life skills”, call it “civics”, call it “behavior” if you will, as we did back in my day. Just please don’t call it Science.

Update: if you thought my quip about box-checking skills being important for NIH grants was facetious, here is the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine describing a recent desk rejection from the NIH for failing to properly format his references on a grant application. Quo vadis, scientia?

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