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What does it mean to be a scientist?

Find out what it really means to be a scientist and who scientists work for.Find out what it really means to be a scientist and who scientists work for.

Theories and experiments

The stereotypical scientist might spend their day in a lab fiddling with complicated equipment, but plenty of scientists spend more time at a desk and are never seen in a white coat. Theoretical scientists look at the data produced by experiments and try to work out theories that explain them.

Although theoretical scientists work in all fields of science, they are probably best known in physics. Many ideas in physics are devised by theoretical physicists long before they can be tested with experiments. For example, the Large Hadron Collider is searching for the Higgs Boson, a particle which was suggested as a theory in the 1960s.

Theoretical science generally involves lots of mathematics, and will often involve creating computer models to represent whatever is being investigated.

Experimental scientists are closer to the stereotype: they run experiments and can often be found in laboratories. But they could also be trekking into the Antarctic, blasting rockets into space or working in a hospital. Their job is either to gather new information that can be used to learn about the world, or to test out theories to see if they match up to reality.

Where do scientists work?

Although many early scientists had enough money to do science as a hobby, modern scientists need to find someone to work for. The most common options are academia, working for the government and working for companies.

Working in academia

Working in academia means having a job at a university, which will normally involve both research and teaching. Academia is very competitive, and almost always requires a PhD.

Academic research covers a huge range of topics, and is often done for its own sake rather than for a particular practical purpose. However, the freedom of academics can be limited by funding. Money for research in universities often comes from the government or from private companies who wish to fund research in a specific area.

Working for the government

As well as funding scientific research in universities, governments often hire scientists to do research more closely related to their policies. For example, government scientists might look at changes in the environment to help decide the government's environmental policy. Organisations like the Met Office, which produces weather forecasts for the UK, are also part of the government.

However, not all government science is to do with the day-to-day running of the country. Government science also includes space projects, medical research and forensic science.

Working for a company

Lots of scientific research is done by businesses hoping to make a profit from what they discover. For example, pharmaceutical companies employ scientists to create and sell new medicines and treatments.

Because businesses need to make money, this kind of science will almost always be something with a practical application. However, some companies might also do a small amount of more basic, 'blue-sky' research in the hope that they will come up with something unexpected but valuable.

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