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Sunday, June 11, 2017

You are what you do, or how people got to see me as an engineer

Source, Wikicommons, CC-BY-SA.
Over the past 20 years I have had endless discussions into what the research is that I do. Many see my work as engineer, but I vigorously disagree. But some days it's just too easy to give up and explain things yet again. The question came up on the past few month several times again, and I am suggested to make a choice. That modern academia for you: you have to excel in something tiny, and complex and hard to explain ambition is loosing from the system based on funding, buzz words, "impact", and such. So, again, I am trying to make up my defense as to why my research is not engineering. You know what is ironic? It's all the fault of Open Science! Darn Open Science.

In case you missed it (no worries, many of the people I talk in depth about these things do, IMHO), my research is of theoretical nature (I tried bench chemistry, but my back is not strong enough for that): I am interested in how to digitally represent chemical knowledge. I get excited about Shannon entropy and books from Hofstadter. I do not get excited about "deep learning" (boring! In fact, the only fun I get out of that is pointing you to this). So, arguably, I am in the wrong field of science. One could argue I am not a biologist or chemist, but a computer scientist, or maybe philosophy (mind you, I have a degree in philosophy).

And that's actually where it starts getting annoying. Because I do stuff on a computer, people associate me with software. And software is generally seen as something that Microsoft does... hello, engineering. The fact that I publish papers on software (think CDK, Bioclipse, Jmol) does not help, of course.

That's where that darn Open Science comes in. Because I have a varied set of skills, I actually know how to instruct a computer to do something for me. It's like writing English, just to a different person, um, thingy. Because of Open Science, I can build the machines that I need to do my science.

But a true scientist does not make their own tools; they buy them (of course, that's an exaggeration, but just realize how well we value data and software citations at this time). They get loads of money to do so, just so that they don't have to make machines. And just because I don't ask for loads of money, or ask a bit of money to actually make the tools I need, you are tagged as engineer. And I, I got tricked by Open Science in fixing things, adding things. What was I thinking??

Does this resonate with experience from others? Also upset about it? What can we do about this?

(So, one of my next blog posts will be about the new scientific knowledge I have discovered. I have to say,  not as much as I wanted, mostly because we did not have the right tools yet, which I have to build first, but that's what this post is about...)