Whither mentoring?

Drugmonkey takes issue with the assertion that mentoring is dead*:

Seriously? People are complaining that mentoring in academic science sucks now compared with some (unspecified) halcyon past?


What should we say about the current state of mentoring in science, as compared to scientific mentoring in days of yore? Here are some possibilities:

Maybe there has been a decline in mentoring.

This might be because mentoring is not incentivized in the same way, or to the same degree, as publishing, grant-getting, etc. (Note, though, that some programs require evidence of successful mentoring for faculty promotion. Note also that some funding mechanisms require that the early-career scientist being funded have a mentor.)

Or it might be because no one trained the people who are expected to mentor (such as PIs) in how to mentor. (In this case, though, we might take this as a clue that the mentoring these PIs received in days of yore was not so perfect after all.)

Or, it might be that mentoring seems to PIs like a risky move given that it would require too much empathetic attachment with the trainees who are also one’s primary source of cheap labor, and whose prospects for getting a job like the PI’s are perhaps nowhere near as good as the PI (or the folks running the program) have led the trainees to believe.

Or, possibly PIs are not mentoring so well because the people they are being asked to mentor are increasingly diverse and less obviously like the PIs.

Maybe mentoring is no worse than it has ever been.

Perhaps it has always been a poorly defined part of the advisor’s job duties, not to mention one for which hardly anyone gets formal training in how to do. Moreover, the fact that it may depend on inclination and personal compatibility might make it more chancy than things like joining a lab or writing a dissertation.

Maybe mentoring has actually gotten better than it used to be.

It’s even possible that increased diversity in training populations might tend to improve mentoring by forcing PIs to be more conscious of their interactions (since they recognize that the people they are mentoring are not just like them). Similarly, awareness that trainees are facing a significantly different employment landscape than the one the mentor faced might help the mentor think harder about what kind of advice could actual be useful.

Here, I think that we might also want to recognize the possibility that what has changed is not the level of mentoring being delivered, but rather the expectations the trainees have for what kind of mentoring they should receive.

Pulling back from the question of whether mentoring has gotten better, worse, or stayed the same, there are two big issues that prevent us from being able to answer that question. One is whether we can get our hands on sensible empirical data to make anything like an apples-to-apples comparison of mentoring in different times (or, for that matter, in different places). The other is whether we’re all even talking about the same thing when we’re holding forth about mentoring and its putative decline.

Let’s take the second issue first. What do we have in mind when we say that trainees should have mentors? What exactly is it that they are supposed to get out of mentoring.

Vivian Weil [1], among others, points us to the literary origin of the term mentor, and the meanings this origin suggests, in the relationship between the characters Mentor and Telemachus in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus; his father was off fighting the Trojan war, and his mother was busy fending off suitors (which involved a lot of weaving and unweaving), so the kid needed a parental surrogate to help him find his way through a confusing and sometimes dangerous world. Mentor took up that role.**

At the heart of mentoring, Weil argues, is the same kind of commitment to protect the interests of someone just entering the world of your discipline, and to help the mentee to develop skills sufficient to take care of himself or herself in this world:

All the activities of mentoring, but especially the nurturing activities, require interacting with those mentored, and so to be a mentor is to be involved in a relationship. The relationships are informal, fully voluntary for both members, but at least initially and for some time thereafter, characterized by a great disparity of experience and wisdom. … In situations where neophytes or apprentices are learning to “play the game”, mentors act on behalf of the interests of these less experienced, more vulnerable parties. (Weil, 473)

In the world of academic science, the guidance a mentor might offer would then be focused on the particular challenges the mentee is likely to face in graduate school, the period in which one is expected to make the transition from being a learner of scientific knowledge to being a maker of new knowledge:

On the traditional model, the mentoring relationship is usually thought of as gradual, evolving, long-term, and involving personal closeness. Conveying technical understanding and skills and encouraging investigative efforts, the mentor helps the mentee move through the graduate program, providing feedback needed for reaching milestones in a timely fashion. Mentors interpret the culture of the discipline for their mentees, and help them identify good practices amid the complexities of the research environment. (Weil, 474)

A mentor, in other words, is a competent grown-up member of the community in which the mentee is striving to become a grown-up. The mentor understands how things work, including what kinds of social interactions are central to conducting research, critically evaluating knowledge claims, and coordinating the efforts of members of the scientific community more generally.

Weil emphasizes that the the role of mentor, understood in this way, is not perfectly congruent with the role of the advisor:

While mentors advise, and some of their other activities overlap with or supplement those of an advisor, mentors should not be confused with advisors. Advising is a structured role in graduate education. Advisors are expected to perform more formal and technical functions, such as providing information about the program and degree requirements and periodic monitoring of advisees’ progress. The advisor may also have another structured role, that of research (dissertation) director, for advisors are often principal investigators or laboratory directors for projects on which advisees are working. In the role of research director, they “may help students formulate research projects and instruct them in technical aspects of their work such as design, methodology, and the use of instrumentation.” Students sometimes refer to the research or laboratory director as “boss”, conveying an employer/employee relationship rather than a mentor/mentee relationship. It is easy to see that good advising can become mentoring and, not surprisingly, advisors sometimes become mentors. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish the institutionalized role of advisor from the informal activities of a mentor. (Weil, 474)

Mentoring can happen in an advising relationship, but the evaluation an advisor needs to do of the advisee may be in tension with the kind of support and encouragement a mentor should give. The advisor might have to sideline an advisee in the interests of the larger research project; the mentor would try to prioritize the mentee’s interests.

Add to this that the mentoring relationship is voluntary to a greater degree than the advising relationship (where you have to be someone’s advisee to get through), and the interaction is personal rather than strictly professional.

Among other things, this suggests that good advising is not necessarily going to achieve the desired goal of providing good mentoring. It also suggests that it’s a good idea to seek out multiple mentors (e.g., so in situations where an advisor cannot be a mentor due to the conflicting duties of the advisor, another mentor without these conflicts can pick up the slack).

So far, we have a description of the spirit of the relationship between mentor and mentee, and a rough idea of how that relationship might advance the welfare of the mentee, but it’s not clear that this is precise enough that we could use it to assess mentoring “in the wild”.

And surely, if we want to do more than just argue based on subjective anecdata about how mentoring for today’s scientific trainees compares to the good old days, we need to find some way to be more precise about the mentoring we have in mind, and to measure whether it’s happening. (Absent a time machine, or some stack of data collected on mentoring in the halcyon past, we probably have to acknowledge that we just don’t know how past mentoring would have measured up.)

A faculty team from the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, led by Roland A. Berk [2], grappled with the issue of how to measure whether effective mentoring was going on. Here, the mentoring relationships in question were between more junior and more senior faculty members (rather than between graduate students and faculty members), and the impetus for developing a reliable way to measure mentoring effectiveness was the fact that evidence of successful mentoring activities was a criterion for faculty promotion.

Finding no consistent definition of mentoring in the literature on medical faculty mentoring programs, Berk et al. put forward this one:

A mentoring relationship is one that may vary along a continuum from informal/short-term to formal/long-term in which faculty with useful experience, knowledge, skills, and/or wisdom offers advice, information, guidance, support, or opportunity to another faculty member or student for that individual’s professional development. (Note: This is a voluntary relationship initiated by the mentee.) (Berk et al., 67)

Then, they spelled out central responsibilities within this relationship:

[F]aculty must commit to certain concrete responsibilities for which he or she will be held accountable by the mentees. Those concrete responsibilities are:

  • Commits to mentoring
  • Provides resources, experts, and source materials in the field
  • Offers guidance and direction regarding professional issues
  • Encourages mentee’s ideas and work
  • Provides constructive and useful critiques of the mentee’s work
  • Challenges the mentee to expand his or her abilities
  • Provides timely, clear, and comprehensive feedback to mentee’s questions
  • Respects mentee’s uniqueness and his or her contributions
  • Appropriately acknowledges contributions of mentee
  • Shares success and benefits of the products and activities with mentee

(Berk et al., 67)

These were then used to construct a “Mentorship Effectiveness Scale” that mentees could use to share their perceptions of how well their mentors did on each of these responsibilities.

Here, one might raise concerns that there might be a divergence between how effective a mentee thinks the mentor is in each of these areas and how effective the mentor actually is. Still, tracking the perceptions of the mentees with the instrument developed by Berk et al. provides some kind of empirical data. In discussions about whether mentoring is getting better or worse, such data might be useful.

And, if this data isn’t enough, it should be possible to work out strategies to get the data you want: Survey PIs to see what kind of mentoring they want to provide and how this compares to what kind of mentoring they feel able to provide. (If there are gaps here, follow-up questions might explore the perceived impediments to delivering certain elements of mentoring.) Survey the people running graduate programs to see what kind of mentoring they think they are (or should be) providing and what kind of mechanisms they have in place to ensure that if it doesn’t happen informally between the student and the PI, it’s happening somewhere.

To the extent that successful mentoring is already linked to tangible career rewards in some places, being able to make a reasonable assessment of it seems appropriate.

It’s possible that making it a standard thing to evaluate mentoring and to tie it to tangible career rewards (or penalties, if one does an irredeemably bad job of it) might help focus attention on mentoring as an important thing for grown-up members of the scientific community to do. This might also lead to more effort to help people learn how to mentor effectively and to offer support and remediation for people whose mentoring skills are not up to snuff.

But, I have a worry (not a huge one, but not nanoscale either). Evaluation of effective mentoring seems to rely on breaking out particular things the mentor does for the mentee, or particular kinds of interactions that take place between the two. In other words, the assessment tracks measurable proxies for a more complicated relationship.

That’s fine, but there’s a risk that a standardized assessment might end up reducing the “mentorship” that mentors offer, and that mentees seek, to these proxies. Were this to happen, we might lose sight of the broader, richer, harder-to-evaluate thing that mentoring can be — an entanglement of interests, a transmission of wisdom, and of difficult questions, and of hopes, and of fears, in what boils down to a personal relationship based on a certain kind of care.

The thing we want the mentorship relationship to be is not something that you could force two people to be in — any more than we could force two people to be in love. We feel the outcomes are important, but we cannot compel them.

And obviously, the assessable outcomes that serve as proxies for successful mentoring are better than nothing. Still, it’s not unreasonable for us to hope for more as mentees, nor to try to offer more as mentors.

After all, having someone on the inside of the world of which you are trying to become a part, someone who knows the way and can lead you through, and someone who believes in you and your potential even a little more than you believe in them yourself, can make all the difference.

*Drugmonkey must know that my “Ethics in Science” class will be discussing mentoring this coming week, or else he’s just looking for ways to distract me from grading.

**As it happened, Mentor was actually Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, in disguise. Make of that what you will.

[1] Weil, V. (2001) Mentoring: Some Ethical Considerations. Science and Engineering Ethics. 7 (4): 471-482.

[2] Berk, R. A., Berg, J., Mortimer, R., Walton-Moss, B., and Yeo, T. P. (2005) Measuring the Effectiveness of Faculty Mentoring Relationships. Academic Medicine. 80: 66-71.

Who matters (or should) when scientists engage in ethical decision-making?

One of the courses I teach regularly at my university is “Ethics in Science,” a course that explores (among other things) what’s involved in being a good scientist in one’s interactions with the phenomena about which one is building knowledge, in one’s interactions with other scientists, and in one’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Some bits of this are pretty straightforward (e.g., don’t make up data out of whole cloth, don’t smash your competitor’s lab apparatus, don’t use your mad science skillz to engage in a campaign of super-villainy that brings Gotham City to its knees). But, there are other instances where what a scientist should or should not do is less straightforward. This is why we spend significant time and effort talking about — and practicing — ethical decision-making (working with a strategy drawn from Muriel J. Bebeau, “Developing a Well-Reasoned Response to a Moral Problem in Scientific Research”). Here’s how I described the basic approach in a post of yore:

Ethical decision-making involves more than having the right gut-feeling and acting on it. Rather, when done right, it involves moving past your gut-feeling to see who else has a stake in what you do (or don’t do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to you; to whom you have obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by your action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull you in different directions as you try to make the best decision. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the competing obligations and interests as vectors, since they come with both directions and magnitudes — which is to say, in some cases where they may be pulling you in opposite directions, it’s still obvious which way you should go because the magnitude of one of the obligations is so much bigger than of the others.

We practice this basic strategy by using it to look at a lot of case studies. Basically, the cases describe a situation where the protagonist is trying to figure out what to do, giving you a bunch of details that seem salient to the protagonist and leaving some interesting gaps where the protagonist maybe doesn’t have some crucial information, or hasn’t looked for it, or hasn’t thought to look for it. Then we look at the interested parties, the potential consequences, the protagonist’s obligations, and the big conflicts between obligations and interests to try to work out what we think the protagonist should do.

Recently, one of my students objected to how we approach these cases.

Specifically, the student argued that we should radically restrict our consideration of interested parties — probably to no more than the actual people identified by name in the case study. Considering the interests of a university department, or of a federal funder, or of the scientific community, the student asserted, made the protagonist responsible to so many entities that the explicit information in the case study was not sufficient to identify the correct course of action.*

And, the student argued, one interested party that it was utterly inappropriate for a scientist to include in thinking through an ethical decision is the public.

Of course, I reminded the student of some reasons you might think the public would have an interest in what scientists decide to do. Members of the public share a world with scientists, and scientific discoveries and scientific activities can have impacts on things like our environment, the safety of our buildings, what our health care providers know and what treatments they are able to offer us, and so forth. Moreover, at least in the U.S., public funds play an essential role in supporting both scientific research and the training of new scientists (even at private universities) — which means that it’s hard to find an ethical decision-making situation in a scientific training environment that is completely isolated from something the public paid for.

My student was not moved by the suggestion that financial involvement should buy the public any special consideration as a scientist was trying to decide the right thing to do.

Indeed, central to the student’s argument was the idea that the interests of the public, whether with respect to science or anything else, are just too heterogeneous. Members of the public want lots of different things. Taking these interests into account could only be a distraction.

As well, the student asserted, too small a proportion of the public actually cares about what scientists are up to that the public, even if it were more homogeneous, ought to be taken into account by the scientists grappling with their own ethical quandaries. Even worse, the student ventured, those that do care what scientists are up to are not necessarily well-informed.

I’m not unsympathetic to the objection to the extreme case here: if a scientist felt required to somehow take into account the actual particular interests of each individual member of the public, that would make it well nigh impossible to actually make an ethical decision without the use of modeling methods and supercomputers (and even then, maybe not). However, it strikes me that it shouldn’t be totally impossible to anticipate some reasonable range of interests non-scientists have that might be impacted by the consequences of a scientist’s decision in various ways. Which is to say, the lack of total fine-grained information about the public, or of complete predictability of the public’s reactions, would surely make it more challenging to make optimal ethical decisions, but these challenges don’t seem to warrant ignoring the public altogether just so the problem you’re trying to solve becomes more tractable.

In any case, I figure that there’s a good chance some members of the public** may be reading this post. To you, I pose the following questions:

  1. Do you feel like you have an interest in what science and scientists are up to? If so, how would you describe that interest? If not, why not?
  2. Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?
  3. If you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions, what should scientists be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests?
  4. And, for the sake of symmetry, do you think members of the public ought to take account of the interests of science or scientists when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

If, for some reason, you feel like chiming in on these questions in the comments would expose you to unwanted blowback, you can also email me your responses (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) for me to anonymize and post on your behalf.

Thanks in advance for sharing your view on this!

*Here I should note that I view the ambiguities within the case studies as a feature, not a bug. In real life, we have to make good ethical decisions despite uncertainties about what consequences will actually follow our actions, for example. Those are the breaks.

**Officially, scientists are also members of the public — even if you’re stuck in the lab most of the time!

What does a Ph.D. in chemistry get you?

A few weeks back, Chemjobber had an interesting post looking at the pros and cons of a PhD program in chemistry at a time when job prospects for PhD chemists are grim. The post was itself a response to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a neuroscience graduate student named Jon Bardin which advocated strongly that senior grad students look to non-traditional career pathways to have both their Ph.D.s and permanent jobs that might sustain them. Bardin also suggested that graduate students “learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview,” recognizing the relative luxury of having a “safe environment” in which to learn skills that are reasonably portable and useful in a wide range of career trajectories — all while taking home a salary (albeit a graduate-stipend sized one).

Chemjobber replied:

Here’s what I think Mr. Bardin’s essay elides: cost. His Ph.D. education (and mine) were paid for by the US taxpayer. Is this the best deal that the taxpayer can get? As I’ve said in the past, I think society gets a pretty good deal: they get 5+ years of cheap labor in science, (hopefully) contributions to greater knowledge and, at the end of the process, they get a trained scientist. Usually, that trained scientist can go on to generate new innovations in their independent career in industry or academia. It’s long been my supposition that the latter will pay (directly and indirectly) for the former. If that’s not the case, is this a bargain that society should continue to support? 

Mr. Bardin also shows a great deal of insouciance about the costs to himself: what else could he have done, if he hadn’t gone to graduate school? When we talk about the costs of getting a Ph.D., I believe that we don’t talk enough about the sheer length of time (5+ years) and what other training might have been taken during that time. Opportunity costs matter! An apprenticeship at a microbrewery (likely at a similar (if not higher) pay scale as a graduate student) or a 1 or 2 year teaching certification process easily fits in the half-decade that most of us seem to spend in graduate school. Are the communications skills and the problem-solving skills that he gained worth the time and the (opportunity) cost? Could he have obtained those skills somewhere else for a lower cost? 

Chemjobber also note that while a Ph.D. in chemistry may provide tools for range of careers, actually having a Ph.D. in chemistry on your resume is not necessarily advantageous in securing a job in one of those career.

As you might imagine this is an issue to which I have given some thought. After all, I have a Ph.D. in chemistry and am not currently employed in a job that is at all traditional for a Ph.D. in chemistry. However, given that it has been nearly two decades since I last dipped a toe into the job market for chemistry Ph.D.s, my observations should be taken with a large grain of sodium chloride.

First off, how should one think of a Ph.D. program in chemistry? There are many reasons you might value a Ph.D. program. A Ph.D. program may be something you value primarily because it prepares you for a career of a certain sort. It may also be something you value for what it teaches you, whether about your own fortitude in facing challenges, or about how the knowledge is built. Indeed, it is possible — maybe even common — to value your Ph.D. program for more than one of these reasons at a time. And some weeks, you may value it primarily because it seemed like the path of least resistance compared to landing a “real job” right out of college.

I certainly don’t think it’s the case that valuing one of these aspects of a Ph.D. program over the others is right or wrong. But …

Economic forces in the world beyond your graduate program might be such that there aren’t as many jobs suited to your Ph.D. chemist skills as there are Ph.D. chemists competing for those jobs. Among other things, this means that earning a Ph.D. in chemistry does not guarantee you a job in chemistry on the other end.

To which, as the proud holder of a Ph.D. in philosophy, I am tempted to respond: join the club! Indeed, I daresay that recent college graduates in many, many majors have found themselves in a world where a bachelors degree guarantees little except that the student loans will still need to be repaid.

To be fair, my sense is that the mismatch between supply of Ph.D. chemists and demand for Ph.D. chemists in the workplace is not new. I have a vivid memory of being an undergraduate chemistry major, circa 1988 or 1989, and being told that the world needed more Ph.D. chemists. I have an equally vivid memory of being a first-year chemistry graduate student, in early 1990, and picking up a copy of Chemical & Engineering News in which I read that something like 30% too many Ph.D. chemists were being produced given the number of available jobs for Ph.D. chemists. Had the memo not reached my undergraduate chemistry professors? Or had I not understood the business model inherent in the production of new chemists?

Here, I’m not interested in putting forward a conspiracy theory about how this situation came to be. My point is that even back in the last millennium, those in the know had no reason to believe that making it through a Ph.D. program in chemistry would guarantee your employment as a chemist.

So, what should we say about this situation?

One response to this situation might be to throttle production of Ph.D. chemists.

This might result in a landscape where there is a better chance of getting a Ph.D. chemist job with your Ph.D. in chemistry. But, the market could shift suddenly (up or down). Were this to happen, it would take time to adjust the Ph.D. throughput in response. As well, current PIs would have to adjust to having fewer graduate students to crank out their data. Instead, they might have to pay more technicians and postdocs. Indeed, the number of available postdocs would likely drop once the number of Ph.D.s being produced more closely matched the number of permanent jobs for holders of those Ph.D.s.

Needless to say, this might be a move that the current generation of chemists with permanent positions at the research institutions that train new chemists would find unduly burdensome.

We might also worry about whether the thinning of the herd of chemists ought to happen on the basis of bachelors-level training. Being a successful chemistry major tends to reflect your ability to learn scientific knowledge, but it’s not clear to me that this is a great predictor of how good you would be at the project of making new scientific knowledge.

In fact, the thinning of the herd wherever it happens seems to put a weird spin on the process of graduate-level education. Education, after all, tends to aim for something bigger, deeper, and broader than a particular set of job skills. This is not to say that developing skills is not an important part of an education — it is! But in addition to these skills, one might want an understanding of the field in which one is being educated and its workings. I think this is connected to how being a chemist becomes linked to our identity, a matter of who we are rather than just of what we do.

Looked at this way, we might actually wonder about who could be harmed by throttling Ph.D. program enrollments.

Shouldn’t someone who’s up for the challenge have that experience open to her, even if there’s no guarantee of a job at the other end? As long as people have accurate information with which to form reasonable expectations about their employment prospects, do we want to be paternalistic and tell them they can’t?

(There are limits here, of course. There are not unlimited resources for the training of Ph.D. chemists, nor unlimited slots in graduate programs, nor in the academic labs where graduate students might participate meaningfully in research. The point is that maybe these limits are the ones that ought to determine how many people who want to learn how to be chemists get to do that.)

Believe it or not, we had a similar conversation in a graduate seminar filled with first and second year students in my philosophy Ph.D. program. Even philosophy graduate students have an interest in someday finding stable employment, the better to eat regularly and live indoors. Yet my sense was that even the best graduate students in my philosophy Ph.D. program recognized that employment in a job tailor-made for a philosophy Ph.D. was a chancy thing. Certainly, there were opportunity costs to being there. Certainly, there was a chance that one might end up trying to get hired to a job for which having a PhD would be viewed as a disadvantage to getting hired. But the graduate students in my philosophy program had, upon weighing the risks, decided to take the gamble.

How exactly are chemistry graduate students presumed to be different here? Maybe they are placing their bets at a table with higher payoffs, and where the game is more likely to pay off in the first place. But this is still not a situation in which one should expect that everyone is always going to win. Sometimes the house will win instead.

(Who’s the house in this metaphor? Is it the PIs who depend on cheap grad-student labor? Universities with hordes of pre-meds who need chemistry TAs and lab instructors? The public that gets a screaming deal on knowledge production when you break it down in terms of price per publishable unit? A public that includes somewhat more members with a clearer idea of how scientific knowledge is built? Specifying the identity of the house is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Maybe the relevant difference between taking a gamble on a philosophy Ph.D. and taking a gamble on a chemistry Ph.D. is that the players in the latter have, purposely or accidentally, not been given accurate information about the odds of the game.

I think it’s fair for chemistry graduate students to be angry and cynical about having been misled as far as likely prospects for employment. But given that it’s been going on for at least a couple decades (and maybe more), how the hell is it that people in Ph.D. programs haven’t already figured out the score? Is it that they expect that they will be the ones awesome enough to get those scarce jobs? Have they really not thought far enough ahead to seek information (maybe even from a disinterested source) about how plausible their life plans are before they turn up at grad school? Could it be that they have decided that they want to be chemists when they grow up without doing sensible things like reading the blogs of chemists at various stages of careers and training?

Presumably, prospective chemistry grad students might want to get ahold of the relevant facts and take account of them in their decision-making. Why this isn’t happening is somewhat mysterious to me, but for those who regard their Ph.D. training in chemistry as a means to a career end, it’s absolutely crucial — and trusting the people who stand to benefit from your labors as a graduate student to hook you up with those facts seems not to be the best strategy ever.

And, as I noted in comments on Chemjobber’s post, the whole discussion suggests to me that the very best reason to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry is because you want to learn what it is like to build new knowledge in chemistry, in an academic setting. Since being plugged into a particular kind of career (or even job) on the other end is a crap-shoot, if you don’t want to learn about this knowledge-building process — and want it enough to put up with long hours, crummy pay, unrewarding piles of grading, and the like — then possibly a Ph.D. program is not the best way to spend 5+ years of your life.

Who profits from killing Pluto?

You may recall (as I and my offspring do) the controversy about six years ago around the demotion of Pluto. There seemed to me to be reasonable arguments on both sides, and indeed, my household included pro-Pluto partisans and partisans for a new, clear definition of “planet” that might end up leaving Pluto on the exo-planet side of the line.

At the time, Neil deGrasse Tyson was probably the most recognizable advocate of the anti-Pluto position, and since then he has not been shy about reaffirming his position. I had taken this vocal (even gleeful) advocacy as just an instance of a scientist working to do effective public outreach, but recently, I’ve been made aware of reasons to believe that there may be more going on with Neil deGrasse Tyson here.

You may be familiar with the phenomenon of offshore banking, which involves depositors stashing their assets in bank accounts in countries with much lower taxes than the jurisdictions in which the depositors actually reside. Indeed, residents of the U.S. have occasionally used offshore bank accounts (and bank secrecy policies) to hide their money from the prying (and tax-assessing) eyes of the Internal Revenue Service.

Officially, those who are subject to U.S. income tax are required to declare any offshore bank accounts they might have. However, since the offshore banks themselves have generally not been required by law to report interest income on their accounts to the U.S. tax authorities, lots of account holders have kept mum about it, too.

Recently, however, the U.S. government has been more vigorous in its efforts to track down this taxable offshore income, and has put more pressure on the offshore bankers not to aid their depositors in hiding assets. International pressure seems to be pushing banks in the direction of more transparency and accountability.

What does any of this have to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson, or with Pluto?

You may recall, back when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was formally considering the question of Pluto’s status, that Neil deGrasse Tyson was a vocal proponent of demoting Pluto from planethood. Despite his position at the Hayden Planetarium, a position in which he had rather more contact with school children and other interested non-scientists making heartfelt arguments in support of Pluto’s planethood, Neil deGrasse Tyson was utterly unmoved.

Steely in his determination to get Pluto reclassified. And forward looking. Add to that remarkably well-dressed (seriously, have you seen his vests?) for a Ph.D. astrophysicist who has spent most of his career working for museums.

The only way it makes sense is if Neil deGrasse Tyson has been stashing money someplace it can earn interest without being taxed. Given his connections, this can only mean off-world banking.

But again, what does this have to do with Pluto?

Pluto killer though he may be, Neil deGrasse Tyson is law abiding. There have so far been no legal requirements to report interest income earned in banks on other planets. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, as a forward looking kind of guy, undoubtedly recognizes that regulators are rapidly moving in the direction of requiring those subject to U.S. income tax to declare their bank accounts on other planets.

The regulators, however, seem uninterested in making any such requirements for those with assets in off-world banks that are not on planets. Which means that while Pluto is less than 1/5 the mass of Earth’s Moon, as a non-planet, it will remain a convenient place for Neil deGrasse Tyson to benefit from compound interest without increasing his tax liability.

It kind of casts his stance on Pluto in a different light, doesn’t it?

[More details in this story from the Associated Press.]