How to Live Out the Christian Life in Scientific Research

When things are going well, scientific research is among the most fulfilling of careers. There is the excitement of discovering new insights into reality. There is the satisfaction of serving the common good by discovering cures or developing solutions to practical problems. There is the communal aspect of working with a team of colleagues dedicated to the same questions.

For Christians, the scientific life provides even deeper joys. Though some have tried to portray faith and science as in conflict, the Church has always supported attempts to gain greater knowledge of the natural world. Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels is the same Word of God through whom the world was created. Natural science, like revealed faith, can be a way to knowledge of God. Many scientists have seen their work in terms of their Christian calling as providing insights into God’s work in creation, as well as contributing to the relief of others’ suffering.

Yet, research does not always go well.

There are the ongoing frustrations of experiments that just will not work, leading to countless hours spent tinkering with reagents and machinery. Even when experiments do work, their results can disappoint, like the researcher who spends two years on a study, only to find that the results disprove her theory. Moreover, such negative results are difficult to publish, and their value is rarely acknowledged. The world of research has also changed over the last forty years, leading to a much greater imperative to publish papers, get grants, turn research into products. The number of faculty research jobs and percentage of funded grants have shrunk, while the numbers of employers who use quantitative measures, like number of papers, grants, or patents, to evaluate employees has grown. A disproven hypothesis can not only puncture your ego, but also your job prospects.

Fighting Temptations in Scientific Research

These difficulties lead to temptations. Some are tempted to use any means to get results. The problem is not so much outright fraud like making up results, although that does happen. Instead, the subtler temptation is to play with the data until getting the “right” results: dropping those few outlying data points that complicate an otherwise clean story; torturing data to try to find any kind of correlation; sloppily rushing an experiment just to get a paper done by a grant deadline.

Too many researchers today give in to such temptations, leading to what many have called a reproducibility crisis. The reliability of science depends upon the fact that any scientist in the world can perform any published experiment and obtain the same results. Over the last decade, however, systematic attempts to replicate experiments in fields like psychology and biomedicine have found that they could reproduce the results in a shockingly small number of cases, frequently less than 50%. Other researchers who refuse such questionable methods are tempted to leave research altogether, discouraged and burning out under pressures. These problems are so great that scientific organizations like the National Academies of Science have felt called to respond.

How to Live Out the Christian Faith in Scientific Research

Though it may not be immediately obvious, the Catholic faith provides much support to the researcher encountering frustration in her research by helping the scientist to develop the perspective, dispositions and community that will help her navigate difficult times. First, understanding the Christian life as service to truth deepens the researcher’s commitment to good research practice. Finding truth is more important than any other aim, which gives a reason to resist temptations.

Second, Catholic devotional practices can reinforce this commitment and help scientists develop the dispositions that will get them through hard times. By praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, by meditating on Scripture, by fasting during Lent, Catholics are trained to perceive their struggles in a different way — to expect them and respond with trust in God. Such practices put everything in perspective, allowing them to act according to their ideas rather than momentary pressures. However important one’s research career, it is not one’s final end. These practices form us in the virtues necessary to seek both earthly goods and the eternal good.

Finally, the Church provides a community that both supports and forms the person. A person is always shaped by the communities he joins and the people he admires. Mentors and coworkers play a large role in the kind of scientist a person becomes, but having communal ties beyond the lab is equally important. Catholic student associations and organizations like the Society of Catholic Scientists provide ties to others undergoing the same struggles, those who can give support through advice and prayer. In these ways, Catholic faith, practice and the Church community can serve a calling to scientific research. They help scientists to pursue the true good of research — a greater insight into the world — rather than the transient goods of success. In turn, it allows them to use their research career to serve God and others. I encourage all those pursuing a career in STEM to take advantage of these aids.

Dr. Paul Scherz
Dr. Paul Scherz
Paul Scherz is Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at the Catholic University of America. Before studying moral theology, he started his career with a doctorate and postdoctoral fellowship in genetic research. He has published extensively in the fields of bioethics and the relationship between science and religion, including his book Science and Christian Ethics, which explores the topics addressed here in greater depth.

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