Through Tulip-Tinted Spectacles: Scientific Perception and Practice

The principles of the scientific method may be constant, but much diversity can be found worldwide in how scientists are perceived--by themselves as well as by the general public--and how science is practiced as a craft. As a foreign scientist working in the Netherlands, I was certainly struck by a few of these differences.

Scientists are considered to be in the upper echelon of society in many countries. This is certainly true in America, where polls have shown that, although not particularly trusted as a group, scientists themselves carry an elite status. In contrast, Dutch people seem perplexed by the concept of scientists and view science as an unappealing and unprestigious profession. This is, of course, consistent with the famous Dutch disdain for elitism in any form. And let's face it: Unless your project involves dolphin-spotting in the Caribbean, after you strip away the status and glamour, science is basically an ill-paid job involving long hours, sporadic rewards, an uncertain future, and often tedious manual labor or computer work. Although the rest of us may choose to delude ourselves, the Dutch are surprisingly clear-eyed and unromantic.

This lack of deference is reflected in the way the title of Doctor is just not used by the general public. All men are meneer (Mr.) and all women, mevrouw (Mrs.), despite that hard-won degree (and in the case of women, despite marital status--single women should resign themselves to the rather disturbing prospect of being perpetually addressed as their mothers). In this respect, newly minted Ph.D.s arriving here might be particularly disappointed, as it's no secret that the thrill of hearing your title is one of the few perks a postdoc can expect in life.

Going hand-in-hand with a dislike of elitism is the Dutch people's long and glorious history of not being terribly fond of being told what to do. If you are in a position of authority--a postdoc or Ph.D. student supervising a technician, for example--it will soon become clear that any influence you thought you had might be all in your head. Instead of politely requesting that your technician perform a task for you, as you would in another country, you might have to invest a good deal of time and energy into explaining why the task would benefit the whole team--almost cajoling the person into performing it. As a research supervisor, I sometimes just nipped into the lab to do a simple procedure myself when I knew it could take longer to wade through those complex, often mentally exhausting negotiations. If the task is tedious or if the technician is bored with that particular manipulation, don't be surprised to encounter mutiny in the form of an outright refusal. (They won't hold back, because getting fired in Holland is almost astronomically impossible.)

Dutch people tend to be brashly self-confident. Although this trait serves them well in science as well as in life, there is one potential pitfall. I have found that Dutch scientists tend to make assumptions, which is of course an essential feature of formulating hypotheses. But what they don't tend to like doing is ruling out the unlikely--the so-called formal possibility--even when it is easy to check. They might instead shrug and say, "Well, I'm 99% sure of my model, so I'm just going to proceed on as if it's true."

Lucky scientists can get away with acting on assumptions, but unlucky ones could find themselves, several years down the line, stumbling over that unlikely 1% and having to start again from square one. This sort of overly relaxed attitude can also manifest itself in paper writing: Statements can be couched as facts when, in actuality, they represent only very likely assumptions--a gaffe not much appreciated by alert peer reviewers. If you are supervising a Dutch scientist--or being supervised by one--you should watch out for this tendency, even as you reap the benefits that Dutch confidence and assertiveness can bring in other areas of research.

It may be confidence too that makes the Dutch refreshingly enthusiastic about new technologies. Perhaps it's no surprise: This is a country that successfully used scientific innovation to reclaim most of its land from the sea. Whereas other nations might hang back nervously to see how things develop, the Dutch are trying out radical new ideas as soon as they see them in print. That the Dutch were so quick off the mark with manipulations such as mammalian RNA inhibition, conditional mouse knockouts, and vast microarray screens could, at least in part, be due to this propensity to be open-minded and to take risks.

Despite their fondness for new technologies, it is immediately apparent to an outsider that the Dutch don't like to talk about science very much. Lab banter is more likely to be about one's mortgage or new bicycle than the projects, and outside of the lab, science can be a taboo subject. This is probably related to the relaxed work ethic here: With very few exceptions, most labs are deserted by 6:00 and on the weekends, and coffee breaks can be long and frequent.

No one is more frustrated by this phenomenon than Dutch lab heads who have done research abroad. One of these, who'd spent time in Britain, told me that he missed coming in at midnight to a building buzzing with lights, music, and the chatter of researchers at work--for him, this was an indispensable part of the "romance" of science. Another, who'd worked in the United States, told me she felt that Dutch scientists just aren't as motivated as their American counterparts. She called this, along with not working late or talking too much about science, a manifestation of "Dutch smugness": taking pride in keeping a firm barrier between work and private life. This may also be why after-work pub sessions don't tend to happen in most labs--certainly not as frequently as they do in Britain (which can be every weeknight in some places).

When I was doing my Ph.D. in America, I frequently endured 80-hour workweeks. But after a few years in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Netherlands, I started to wonder whether the Dutch might not have the right idea. After all, one is meant to be working to earn money to live, not living to work. We've all heard the anthropological adage that the early hunter-gatherer societies only had to work 20 hours a week to survive. The live-to-work culture is only a relatively recent, and possibly highly destructive, phase of our evolution. I certainly found that I made fewer mistakes and felt more creative when I'd actually gotten enough sleep, taken time off at weekends, and enjoyed my life. But if you remain committed to workaholism, resign yourself to many lonely nights in the lab.

Every country and culture has its pros and cons, and I would say that the Netherlands, although not always living up to expectations, is still a decent scientific destination. You will most likely have a stimulating scientific experience. Culturally, you will enjoy the fresh air, the relatively low cost of living, and the exotic possibilities of bar-hopping by bicycle. And socially, you can be sure of an ex-pat presence to buffer any exclusion you might feel.

In science as well as out, there is no experience more valuable than living outside your normal range of opinions and experiences. You will see not only your experiments but your fellow human beings in a fresh light. And you will develop as an individual, both by learning how others approach life, as well as by becoming more aware of your own culture by comparison.

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