Jurassic July: The Three-Legged Stool of Science

Still from Jurassic Park showing all the scientists huddled around a hatching dinosaur.

We’re going to do all the science! (© Universal Pictures)

For the rest of July, we will be taking a look at the Jurassic Park films, mainly Jurassic Park and Jurassic World. We will be discussing the films in detail, so spoilers are possible but will be kept to a minimum.

When I was a microbiology graduate student, it was generally understood that there were three broad career options: continue on in academia, work for the government, or join the corporate world. Any discussion of one’s future plans and goals typically started with a question about that threefold choice. Looking at the original Jurassic Park and the most recent Jurassic World, I noticed how the various forces driving the plot also fell into one of those three categories.

The first film dramatizes the relationship between the academy and the private sector. Clearly the theme park is a corporate concern, engaged in science only insofar as it sells tickets and souvenirs. Meanwhile, Drs. Grant, Sattler and Malcolm are recruited to provide an independent assessment. I don’t believe their exact jobs are specified, but they obviously are not direct employees of Jurassic Park or its parent company Ingen. They exhibit the independence and intellectual freedom generally associated with academics. The implication is that the corporate scientists (may?) have been blinded by greed and only academic have the impartiality and respect for nature to see what is really happening at the park.

That outsider voice is largely absent from Jurassic World. The corporate scientists are back — most notably recurring character Dr. Wu — and there is a strong military presence (technically I think it’s a private security force, but staffed with ex-military folks interested in military applications). Everyone looks at the dinosaurs as a resource to exploit. Perhaps Owen Grady offers the academic perspective, just without the credentials or official academic standing. He seems more interested in “pure” research than anyone else, although his actual goals training the raptors are never very clear. He’s also brought in to provide a fresh perspective — not precisely an outsider view since he lives and works on the island — although once again too late to prevent catastrophe.

I’d imagine these different roles represent a typical understanding of how the academy, corporations and the government (or at least the military) work. The academics do research for the sake of advancing Science (possibly at the expense of doing anything practical), companies do research to make money, and the military does research to make better weapons. Of course, reality is much more complicated. Even in the first film, we are reminded that academic research dollars have to come from somewhere, creating certain expectations if not outright obligations, and academics do more than reverentially observe nature. Meanwhile, what we might consider pure science research is regularly done by scientists collecting corporate paychecks. Military research has provided plenty of civilian benefits. And that’s not even mentioning all the folks who take their scientific training and go into law or policy or journalism or any number of other domains! So while these films can and do inspire plenty of folks to pursue scientific careers, we need to be prepared to help those so inspired to unpack what the real career options actually look like.

How do you understand the career options in your field? How do you engage with public perceptions of your particular career track? How do you interact with others in your field who work in a different “sector?”

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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  • RJacobsen.sjs@gmail.com'
    Robertlikesrocks commented on July 8, 2015 Reply

    Hi Andy, thanks for exploring this topic and for picking one of my favorite stories. I agree with you, the characters seem to be divided into three factions: academia, government, and industry. However, I believe these characters have underlying motivations that don’t necessarily fit their factions. For example, John Hammond’s purpose was to provide substance, actual creatures, to children’s awe and wonder, as opposed to the allusion of a flee circus. The money was merely a means to that end…”I spared no expense!” I’ll need to think more about the motivations of the academics, but I think it has less to do with knowing what’s happening in the park and more to do with the humility that comes from being wrong so many times.

    I think the Hammond example would suggest another question, like “How do your motivations to work in a particular sector differ from the general motivations of that sector? Does the difference ever create conflict?”

    Looking forward to your other posts!

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on July 8, 2015 Reply


      I suppose you’re right that Hammond isn’t motivated by accumulating money, but he definitely thinks in monetary terms. “I spared no expense!” is practically a catchphrase for him, a palatable way of saying “I can buy anything — or anyone — I want.” He may have some laudable goals, such as inspiring awe, but he seems to approach them all as something to be purchased.

      Drs. Grant and Sattler seem largely motivated by curiosity; they can’t pass up the opportunity to see living dinosaurs (and prehistoric plants) after a lifetime of studying fossils. As such, they don’t seem biased against the park a priori, and in fact some part of them probably wants it to succeed so they can continue to interact with more dinosaurs. But that curiosity also leads them to notice the problematic details that others overlooked. Dr. Malcolm’s motivations are fuzzier; mainly he seems to want vindication for his “fringe” (as depicted in the film) mathematical ideas.

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