It is human nature to feel that you’re at the center of the universe, with all of life and experience revolving around your fixed point of view like a lazy orbit of galaxies. On a larger scale, this biased perspective can influence groups of people, and indeed entire countries. Most of you are probably familiar with the light-hearted maps of Daniel K. Wallingford from the 1920s, showing particular cities and their skewed view of the rest of the world, which have been used as inspiration for dozens of similar efforts since that time (The Saul Steinberg cover for the March 29, 1976 issue of The New Yorker being possibly the most well-known example).
Scientific culture, in particular, can be incredibly parochial, especially if you are fortunate enough to do research in a country regarded as ‘world-class’. I have noticed a particular attitude amongst some American scientists, for example, whose words and behaviors can sometimes betray elitism. “Real” science is done in America, you see, whereas other countries are just mucking about and possibly filling in some useful blanks.
A great example of this was the reaction I experienced as PhD student in Seattle, when I was fortunate enough to secure my first post-doctoral position with one of my heroes at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute. Expecting universal excitement and approval from my professors, I was instead treated in many cases to puzzled looks and bewilderment. I will never forget the words of the most censorious: “It’s all very well and good to do a post-doc abroad, but you do realize it won’t count, and you’ll have to start over with another post-doc in America.”
I don’t know what was more shocking: that this guy would say this to my face, or that he would actually believe it in the first place. (For context, the person in London I was going to be working with was about a hundred times more well-known and famous than this guy. A quick Google search, incidentally, reveals that this censorious professor dropped out of science many years ago, whereas my first post-doctoral supervisor is now a Fellow of the Royal Society. Despite this, the memory of his opinion of the scientific calibre “abroad” still has to power to raise my blood pressure in a swift flash of remembered anger.)
There are of course many other examples of this. You’ll sometimes see American open-access crusaders making – unconscious, I assume – statements implying that all peer-reviewed papers are paid for by American tax payers. We’ve also heard stories about important findings in faraway countries that are not celebrated until a prominent Western lab rediscovers and publishes the same thing in a bigger journal. Even Sarah Palin’s incredulity about “Fruit fly research in Paris, France” is channeling some deeper anxiety about self and other.
But it’s not limited to Americans – I want to stress that this sort of bias occurs in every place, on every scale. When I worked in the Netherlands, my entire universe seemed to shrink to a tiny nation six feet below sea level, and suddenly the lab heads at the Netherlands Cancer institute were perceived to be the top dogs, looming much larger than overseas celebrity scientists, whereas my own situation at the University of Leiden was considerably more lowly. Within Leiden, our biotech environment was looked down upon still further by the surrounding academic labs. Here in London, I sometimes get the feeling that some of my colleagues view the rest of the United Kingdom – aside from Oxford and Cambridge – as being somewhat less lofty. The joke is, of course, that the true beacon is still America, even here: there used to be a joke circulating amongst British PhD students that you really needed a BTA (“Been To America”) on your CV to be taken seriously in your future academic job stakes.
Perhaps the parochialism that most infuriates me is the habit of geographically biased name-checking during scientific seminars. I’m sure you’ve all heard this: Joe Bloggs up on the podium, attributing every background finding to specifically named (typically American or local) lab-heads, until he gets to one particular nugget of information that is attributed to “a Japanese group”. The underlying implication is that this person is no one you need to know about or remember, because he or she performed the research in a faraway place where labs are indistinguishable from one another. But again, it’s all relative. At a recent conference I attended, a British speaker name-checked American and British authors, but referred to “a French group”. A few talks later, a French speaker name-checked French and German lab heads, but dismissed another finding as being from “The Chinese”. And so it goes – each person in his or her own universe, carefully drawing lines between self and other, between tribe and not-tribe, between those belonging in the inner named circle, and those doomed forever to anonymity.