10 types of scientist

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Science jobs are not all the same - Diana Garnham identifies 10 types of scientist.

One of the Science Council’s key aims is to encourage more young people to consider a career in science. Research shows that the understanding of the careers available is generally poor and that the most common vision of a ‘scientist’ is someone who works in a lab in a white coat, probably undertaking research into something fairly obscure and distanced from everyday life. This is not surprising. Most publicly funded public engagement activity has focused around research and academia, and media coverage of ‘science’ is most commonly about research and breakthroughs. Many within the science community consider you need to be in the elite group of those with a PhD to be considered a ‘scientist’: take for example the comments after the election last year that there were now ‘only three’ scientists – that meant three with PhDs – in Parliament.

One of the most obvious ways to define scientists was to draw on the central discipline underpinning their work: physics, chemistry, biology, soil science, psychology etc. Professional bodies also work around sectors such as energy or water but this doesn’t help to describe what people actually do in their work. In order to give some shape to this I realised we need to have a better understanding of not just the knowledge that scientists need to have but also the skills they will use in their work. I have identified 10 broad types of scientist.

A science professional may have a career as a scientist, in science or from science. Working as a scientist they will be in a STEM environment and the role will be clearly recognised as a science role. Working ‘in’ science they may be in a STEM sector but will have moved away from direct day to day science and be influencing, supporting, promoting, managing, leading and shaping. Scientists also move into the wider employment sector where their science knowledge and wider skills are also valued and these are ‘from’ science.

Even within these broad categories the roles differ. To help illustrate this I have identified 10 types of scientist©.

These are:

  1. Explorer
  2. Investigator
  3. Developer/Translational
  4. Service provider/operational
  5. Monitor/regulator
  6. Entrepreneur
  7. Communicator
  8. Teacher
  9. Business/Marketing
  10. Policy maker

Explorer scientist header image

The Explorer Scientist is someone who, like Columbus is on a journey of discovery “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. They will most often be a ‘basic’ scientist, rarely focused on a specific outcome or impact beyond the next piece of the jigsaw of scientific understanding and knowledge. Commonly they will be described as a ‘blue skies’ researcher and freshness of ideas and creativity will mark them out. Any investment will have an element of risk and outcomes - even if output is identifiable new knowledge – will be unknown and not predictable. They are likely to be employed in a university or research centre but may not be primarily a teacher, research leader or involved in science policy. They may well work alone.

Investigator scientist header image

The Investigator Scientist is the ‘mapping’ scientist. They dig into the unknown observing, mapping, understanding and piecing together in-depth knowledge and data, setting out the landscape for others to translate and develop. They survive in troubled times because there is always so much to find out. They will almost certainly be located in HE or a research centre, will usually work in a team in what will increasingly be a multi-disciplinary environment.

Developer/translational scientist header image

The Developer/Translational Scientist is an ‘applied’ scientist whose depth of knowledge and skills of both the research environment and the potential user environment enables them to make use of the knowledge generated by others and transform it into something that society can use. They might be developing products, services, ideas that change behaviour, improvements in health care and medicines, new technology or the application of existing technology in new settings. They will be the interface between science and society turning new knowledge and understanding of the world around us into benefits for society.

Service provider/operational scientist header image

The Operational/Service Provider Scientist is one who provides scientific services in a wide range of ways. Rarely visible these are scientists we have come to depend on within the health service, forensic science, food science, health and safety, materials analysis and testing etc and many also provide support in research and educational laboratories. This group of scientists have strong laboratory skills and they probably do wear a white coat. They will be found in both the public and private sectors. Examples include biomedical scientists and school science technicians.

Monitor/regulator scientist header image

The Monitor/Regulator Scientist is becoming increasingly important as we translate more science and technology into society, and as society needs the increasing reassurance that systems and technology are reliable and safe and seen to be reliable and safe. It is crucial for society that we build and maintain public trust and confidence in the applications of science so the monitor/regulator scientist must be able to communicate with the public as well as with the leading edge researcher, and establish credibility with both. They will have a mix of skills and may not be working in the lab very much although they will have a thorough understanding of the science and the processes involved in monitoring its use or application. Examples include Food Standards Agency, government science services and HFEA and a wide range of testing and measurement services.

Entrepreneur scientist header image

The Entrepreneur Scientist plays a crucial role in making innovation happen. Their scientific knowledge and connections are deep enough to be able to see opportunities for innovation – not just in business but also in public sector and service delivery. They are able to blend their science knowledge and credibility with people management skills, entrepreneurial flair and a strong understanding of business and finance. They will need to know how business sectors work, how to secure investment and finance, and to oversee the development and innovation process. They may need to explain or ‘represent’ the science thinking at Executive Board level and to investors, covering discussions and decision-making on new products, competition, health and safety etc.

Communicator scientist header image

The Communicator Scientist is a crucial group of scientists. Communicator scientist’s career path may follow a variety of routes and for the majority there is likely to be some post graduate science training, including PhD level. These are scientists who are able to combine their science and technological know-how with an ability to communicate and they need to be credible and trusted by both the science community and the public. Seemingly undervalued by the ‘pure’ scientists, the science community as a whole recognises the benefit from increasing the pool of individuals with the right combination of skills to communicate science. All science sectors, not just research, need science communicators who are able to enthuse, inform and get a message across by combining a deep knowledge of the science, empathy and understanding of the needs of the audience, and expertise in how media and other communication channels work.  Science communicators are found in all areas of communications including TV and radio, advertising and promotion, regulation and public affairs as well as social media.

Teacher scientist header image

The Teacher Scientist is an obvious category – people who are trained in science and who share the knowledge and train the next generation. Often forgotten but certainly in my view fully part of the science community these scientists will be working in schools, colleges and higher education and developing the tools for teaching and learning. Their knowledge of science is combined with pedagogy.

Business/marketing scientist header image

The Business Scientist will be found in almost all parts of the economy where a high level of science and technology knowledge and skill is playing a part. The science and technology based sectors employ large numbers of different types of STEM graduates working in a variety of settings from R&D to marketing especially in the business to business sectors such as IT. STEM skills and knowledge are of course valuable in many types of non STEM businesses – marketing, modeling, product development, finance, insurance, communications etc. but in the STEM related business to business environments (eg pharmaceuticals marketing and IT services) a high level of technical and specialist knowledge is essential. They must have sufficient scientific and technical knowledge to be credible with colleagues and competitors and over time they will have opportunities to progress through the company to higher levels at which their scientific knowledge is valuable but their management and business skills are essential. At senior management board or Executive Board level they may be in a minority of those with science knowledge and will have to cover discussions and decision-making on new products, competition, health and safety etc.

Policy maker scientist header image

The Policy Scientist combines science and technical knowledge and skills with knowledge and understanding of government and policy making, decision making and scrutiny processes to ensure that legislation and policy have a sound evidence base. Employed and involved at many levels and in many environments including government and Parliament, NGOs and campaigning groups. Within this group of scientists, communication, people and negotiation skills are highly prized as is their ability to live within an environment in which decisions have to be made on incomplete evidence. To be a government Chief Scientific Adviser is perhaps the top level and some of these have described themselves as 75% scientist and 25% politician.

I am very grateful for the input from the Science Council’s member organisations and to 100s of individual chartered scientists who we asked to describe themselves and then to decide what type of scientist they were. I also want to thank Sir Paul Nurse for sowing the seeds of this idea in conversations when he was CEO of Cancer Research UK about the fact that not all types of research were the same and needed different types of research funding to enable them to happen. Having started with three categories we ended up with 10 but have avoided increasing this to a full football team of roles! While it was always clear to the Science Council that not all scientists will work in a lab, not all have a PhD and not all will work in academia, I hope we have now found a way of illustrating the variety of careers that a scientist might have. I hope others find this the outline of the 10 types of scientist helpful and will use it to broaden their careers information advice and guidance on STEM careers.

Diana Garnham
23rd February 2011

Download the document here: 10 types of scientist (pdf 68KB)