A few months ago, I was invited to a “breakfast session” at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri, where a visiting professor and I would co-lead a discussion with trainees. Hearing the word “breakfast,” I accepted.
The question we were told to discuss, in front of about 20 grad students who presumably also heard the word “breakfast,” was this: If you could make one change to improve global health, what would it be?
I hate hypothetical questions. The correct answer is “make everyone healthy,” and because it’s hypothetical, that can’t be wrong. I planned to give a version of that answer before talking about global health more generally—and then see if I could create a diversion that would allow me to pocket some muffins.
But the professor came prepared. He not only had an answer, but he had a manifesto: a list of what he would do and in what order, from upending the textile dyeing industry to reforming farming practices. There’s a particular part of his answer, however, that was not only unambiguous, but would also become relevant later in the day.
“I would buy out Dow Chemical and Monsanto and shut them down,” he announced.
Fair enough. It’s his wish list, and the declaration didn’t ruffle any feathers in the room. We’ve all heard about questionable practices carried out by large corporations, and Dow and Monsanto often make the list of classically “evil” offenders, like Enron, or Philip Morris, or Build-A-Bear Workshop.
The breakfast was followed by a coffee break and then lunch—God I love these events. But before lunch, a few professors and recent alumni spoke about their career paths. One was Nathan VanderKraats, a former postdoc who told everyone how much he now enjoys his job as a data scientist and technical lead at ... wait for it ... Monsanto.
“It must be hard,” I thought, “having to preface every answer to ‘What do you do?’ with ‘So, uh, here’s the thing.’”
VanderKraats confirmed this suspicion when I spoke with him after the panel. He said that there are a lot of misconceptions about his employer, and that he’s had a few awkward conversations in which he’s had to basically explain that his job—developing algorithms to analyze data about phenotypes and genetics—is not tantamount to throwing baby bunnies into a wood chipper.
“I think we contribute positively to the world,” VanderKraats told me, “but sometimes I still hesitate a little to reveal that in a conversation, because you’re not really sure if the person on the other end is an opponent.”
During his postdoc, VanderKraats had studied cancer, and after a while he had come to take for granted the instant adulation that came with the answer to “What do you do?” Because seriously, who is pro-cancer? So, before accepting a job at Monsanto, which is not quite as universally adored as the noble warriors who battle cancer, he had to genuinely consider whether he could be comfortable with that shift in everybody else’s perception.
In a way, he reminded me of another scientist I met at a conference a few years ago who worked for Intellectual Ventures Laboratory. “Hey,” I said to her, “I just listened to an episode of This American Life about your employer! Aren’t they, like, the country’s most notorious patent troll?”
She rolled her eyes. She’d heard this before. She was a biologist working on infectious diseases, not a patent attorney, but every time she mentioned her employer’s name, she had to play defense. Just like VanderKraats, she found her work rewarding and important, but sometimes her company’s infamy preceded her.
To become a scientist, you go to school for decades and dedicate your life to your project, until you’re finally in a position to land a job that uses your hard-earned skills and puts food on the table. (Genetically modified food, maybe, but food.) We take jobs for a variety of reasons: because they pay well, or they’re intellectually satisfying, or they’re in the geographic area where we want or need to live, or—often—because they’re at the only place that said yes. And the provider of that job is a complicated entity with its own politics, its own public relations failures, and its own reputation. Do employers’ battles suddenly become ours?
It’s such a tricky position to be in. In graduate school, I once found myself at a dinner with my friend and her brother, and when I mentioned that we used mice in some of our experiments, the brother pretty much lost his mind. “What did the mice ever do to you?” he screamed. I was so caught off guard that I never figured out how to communicate that my lab’s motivation for studying mice was not vengeance-based.
So what do you do when you get a job offer from the Evil McSinister Corporation, where they’re manufacturing an army of subjugated robot monkey drones to control the weather? Or at Heartless Government Mega-Agency, where you need to locate a notary public at taxpayer expense every time you want to pee? Or at Scandalized University (home of the Fighting Paralegals!), where a past disgrace totally unrelated to your department makes people narrow their eyes at you and hiss, “How can you possibly want to work there, knowing what the assistant intramural lacrosse coach did in 1988?”
It reminds me of the conversation in the film Clerks about independent contractors on the Death Star. Yes, they were working for Darth Vader, but does that make them complicit with him?
Some of you are probably thinking, “Well, that’s not a trap I’d ever fall into. If I don’t agree with a company’s philosophy, then it’s not a company for me.” I applaud your principles. And good luck with that.
After all, nearly every employer is perceived as evil by someone. If you’re in the chemical industry, you’re poisoning the world. If you’re developing medicines, you’re a shill for Big Pharma. If you’re an engineer at an energy company, you hate pelicans. If you’re in academia, you’re sneering at the peasants from your ivory tower. NASA wastes taxpayer money. Meteorologists are always wrong. Every form of energy production sucks. Military scientists love war. Mathematicians are superfluous. None of our results can be replicated, we’re all drawing unsurprising conclusions, and none of us would allow moral concerns to interfere with results.
I’d like to think that scientists have an ethical obligation to ensure that our work does no harm. It’s a credo I stole from the medical students. But at the same time, we can’t be held responsible for every decision our employers make—especially because most of us have very little power at our places of employment.
Whether or not the criticism is warranted, or even properly directed, it’s how we respond that matters most. VanderKraats said that regardless of how some of his encounters with anti-Monsantans have begun, they usually end up being positive and productive. The mere act of meeting a face from a previously faceless company forces people to at least acknowledge that a real, well-intentioned person works there.
It’s a lesson all scientists could stand to learn. When science is increasingly regarded with suspicion, the best way to temper our detractors is to show them we’re friendly human beings motivated by something other than world domination.
For example, muffins.