On the shoulders of the dwarves – basic science

By Luiz Augusto Campos

Inequality within science

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“If I could see beyond that, it was because I was on the shoulders of the giants.” From the motto of the Google Scholar homepage to the title of a Stephen Hawking bestseller, this saying has become a symbol and synthesis of how scientific advancement would take place. However, the story of the sentence is much more complex. Although formulated centuries earlier, its most famous version comes from a letter from Isaac Newton in response to one of his greatest enemies, Robert Hooke, who complained about the lack of recognition of his philosophical contributions to the laws of gravity.

At that time Newton not only claimed the authorship of these laws, but also contradicted Hooke about the importance of speculative knowledge for science. In his view, most scientific discoveries were made against the giants, not by them. What few people know is that earlier thinkers’ mention of gigantism was probably Newton’s ironic reference to Hooke’s short stature. Therefore, the metaphor would be more than a synthesis of the progress of scientific knowledge, but a sarcastic stab into the dubious theories of the person you are talking to. More importantly, he implied that Hooke was far from being one of those titans and that his contribution to the theories of gravity was minimal.

But the recurring mention of this phrase today not only contradicts a misinterpretation of its most famous usage. Although we are seduced by the heroism of forerunners such as Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein or Pasteur, the logic of scientific discoveries today is very different from what it was before. Names like Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison, for example, worked alone, with manual experiments in almost self-made laboratories. Nothing could be further removed from the collective, routine and networked work of contemporary science. The role of personal knowledge is important here, but far less than that of the accumulation of knowledge of numerous scientists.

There is no mistake in shifting the focus from giants to dwarfs, on the contrary. Recognizing the role of the many versus the few combats an intrinsic tendency in science to distribute funds and academic grants to selected individuals, rendering the collective work behind the great discoveries invisible. This logic reinforces what sociologist Robert Merton called the “Matthew Effect”: In science, as in the biblical parable of talents, “those who have will be given more and they will have much, but those who have not have “, even what it has will be taken from it”.

There is no consensus on what contributes to the amplification of inequalities within science, but the multiple filters typical of academic careers and the strong hierarchical logic of laboratories appear to be central elements. The role of leaders in managing complex projects remains fundamental, but they themselves do not ignore the difficulties of sharing successes. In interviews with Nobel Prize winners in the 1970s, Harriet Zuckerman has already highlighted the uneasiness of these scientists with excessive individual recognition. Many complained that the attention the award attracted overshadowed the collaborative work of numerous teams. In coining the term “Matilda Effect,” Margaret Rossiter emphasized how this invisibility affected women in particular, but the same seems to hold true for scholars of various other political minorities as well.

Except for rare moments of paradigmatic revolution, science is not built on the shoulders of giants, but on the contributions of dwarfs. Even the most innovative discoveries are often based on the joint work of numerous scientists who publish hundreds of articles, work in laboratories with teams of assistants in quasi-industrial structures, linked by global cooperation networks. When academic hierarchies play a role in the management, production, and reproduction of science, they cannot lead to an endless accumulation of inequalities and asymmetries. The challenge, therefore, is to create a reward structure that rewards great leaders without ignoring the fundamental role of collective work, especially of scientists from disadvantaged and discriminated groups.

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Luiz Augusto Campos is professor of sociology at the UERJ Institute of Social and Political Studies, editor-in-chief of the journal DADOS and researcher on diversity in the academic world.

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