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On the shoulders of the runts – Fundamental science

By Luiz Augusto Campos

Inequality within science

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“If I could see beyond 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 best seller, this adage became a symbol and synthesis of how scientific advancement would take place. The story of the sentence is much more complex, however. Though formulated centuries earlier, its most famous version originates from a letter sent by Isaac Newton in response to one of his greatest foes, Robert Hooke, who complained about the lack of recognition of his philosophical contributions to the laws of gravity.

At the time, Newton not only claimed authorship of these laws but also disagreed with Hooke on the importance of speculative knowledge to science. From his perspective, scientific discoveries would largely be made against the giants, not from them. What few people know is that the mention of the gigantism of the thinkers of the past was probably an ironic reference by Newton to Hooke’s short stature. Therefore, more than synthesizing the advance of scientific knowledge, the metaphor would be a sarcastic prick in the doubtful theories of its interlocutor. More importantly, he was implying that Hooke was far from one of those titans and that his contribution to gravity theories was minimal.

But the recurrent mention of this phrase today not only contradicts a misinterpretation of its most famous use. Although we are seduced by the heroism of precursors like Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein or Pasteur, the logic of scientific discovery today is very different from that of yesteryear. Names like Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison, for example, worked alone, with artisanal experiments in almost homemade laboratories. Nothing could be further from the collective, routinized and networked work of contemporary science. In it, the role of personal insights is important, but far less than that played by the accumulation of knowledge carried out by numerous scientists.

There is no demerit in shifting the emphasis from giants to dwarfs, on the contrary. Recognizing the role of the many compared to the few is fighting an intrinsic tendency of science to distribute funding and academic grants to select individuals, making 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 the talents, “to those who have, more will be given, and will have plenty, but to those who don’t have, even what have it will be taken from him”.

There is no consensus on what promotes the reinforcement of inequalities internal to science, but the multiple filters typical of the academic career and the highly hierarchical logic of laboratories seem to be central elements. The role of leaders in managing complex projects remains fundamental, but they themselves do not ignore the difficulties in sharing achievements. In interviews with Nobel laureates in the 1970s, Harriet Zuckerman already highlighted the discomfort of these scientists with the excessive individual recognition they received. Many lamented that the attention generated by the award overshadowed the collective work of numerous teams. In coining the notion of the “Matilda effect”, Margaret Rossiter highlighted how this invisibility affected women in particular, but the same seems to apply to scientists from several other political minorities.

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

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

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