|T H E N I H C A T A L Y S T||S E P T E M B E R O C T O B E R 2000|
|F R O M||T H E||D E P U T Y||D I R E C T O R||F O R||I N T R A M U R A L||R E S E A R C H|
VOLUNTEERISM AMONG SCIENTISTS:
PASSING THE TORCH
THESE VOLUNTEER ACTIVITIES FORM
THE INFRASTRUCTURE THAT
SUPPORTS THE CULTURE OF SCIENCE.
BECAUSE SCIENTISTS OFFER THESE
SERVICES FOR FREE (OR NEARLY
FREE), IT HELPS REDUCE THE
APPEARANCE OF CONFLICT OF
INTEREST IN DECISIONS ABOUT
MANUSCRIPTS AND GRANTS. IT ALSO
ALLOWS SCIENTIFIC SOCIETIES TO
FUNCTION MORE EFFECTIVELY,
ALLOWING THEM TO FOCUS ON THE
GOALS OF THEIR MEMBERS.
The early career training of researchers rarely touches on one important aspect of collegiality and community among scientists. Researchers in training are expected to learn how to form and nurture scientific collaborations as part of their scientific activities. However, they do not usually hear about the important role that scientists play as volunteers. In addition to the many services that scientists provide within their own institutions, such as membership on tenure and search committees, critical volunteer services to the scientific community as a whole include reviewing papers and serving on editorial boards and review panels (such as NIH study sections) and as officers and board members of scientific societies. In general, these are activities that are not directly compensated, but are absolutely essential if the scientific enterprise is to prosper.
These volunteer activities form the infrastructure that supports the culture of science. Because scientists offer these services for free (or nearly free), it helps reduce the appearance of conflict of interest in decisions about manuscripts and grants. It also allows scientific societies to function more effectively, allowing them to focus on the goals of their members. Most scientists give freely of their time for these activities, and researchers in training should be taught, by word and deed, that volunteer activities on behalf of research are desirable and laudable.
Of course, volunteering has significant benefits, even if they are less tangible than financial remuneration. Academic promotions are based to some extent on recognition by fellow scientists, and participating in the kind of review activities listed above is viewed as a sign of such recognition. Scientists who volunteer for review groups influence publications and grant distribution and thus may ultimately affect the direction of a field, extending the reach of their intellectual activities beyond what could be achieved within one laboratory, or even a group of collaborating laboratories. For early career researchers, assignment to an editorial board or a study section is frequently a chance to meet more senior colleagues and join a community of scientists. Finally, the personal satisfaction that comes from volunteering time and energy in support of science can be substantial.
For fellows, there is at least one conspicuous avenue for volunteer participationservice on the NIH Fellows' Committee and its projects. Run by Fellows for Fellows, this group has substantially improved the quality of life for early-career scientists at NIH. Over the course of the year, this group has many opportunities for volunteer participationserving on review committees for the FARE awards and other projects, hosting speakers for the Wednesday Afternoon Lectures, and moderating their electronic bulletin board, as well as representing an institute on the committee itself.
Naturally, the amount of time one has to volunteer for such activities will depend on supervisors approval and other pressing responsibilities. My intention here is to suggest that each of you strongly consider this use of at least some of whatever discretionary time you may find you have.
I may, of course, be preaching to the converted, for it seems to me that scientists volunteer more of their time for activities in support of their profession than any other discipline. Many professional societies thrive thanks to the many members who serve as officers or on their various committees or on the editorial boards of the societys journals. But to ensure the continued vitality of biomedical research, senior researchers need to make one more contribution: We need to encourage our colleagues who are just beginning their research careers to consider volunteering some of their time for activities such as this. The public, and science, will benefit if we do.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research
(adapted from an article written for a professional society for which Gottesman volunteers)
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