I don’t wear a lab coat, but I’m still a scientist

9 SEPTEMBER 2020

I don’t wear a lab coat, but I’m still a scientist

To mark Social Sciences Week, a Charles Sturt scientist highlights the important contributions of the humanities and social sciences and urges this be remembered amid the Federal Government’s proposed fee hikes for future students of the discipline.

By Dr Sarina Kilham, Lecturer in agricultural extension and rural sociology in the Charles Sturt University School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences and member of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation.

When you think of a scientist many people likely imagine someone in a white lab coat, tinkering with a microscope, and indeed a quick google image search would reinforce this stereotype. But the scientific methods of observation and asking questions of the world around us are equally applicable to the Social Sciences. We social scientists are curious and engaged, and we not only wonder about human behaviour, communication and societies - our research has very real-life impacts and outcomes across multiple spheres. From biosecurity to agriculture and finance, these are dependent on human social systems, and social scientists are key to knowing how to achieve the changes and outcomes we’d like. 

This year for the podcast: ‘What’s Sociology Got to do with it?’  I’ve interviewed experts from rural and regional Australia on a diverse range of topics, including driver behaviour change, women in trades, living through COVID-19 in rural Australia, antibiotic resistance, training para-veterinarians and challenges for Australian Farmers. I’ve asked each of these experts why the social sciences matters to them and their research. The most resounding response has been that the social sciences are essential because they give us tools, insights and deep understanding of people. Often the so-called hard science issues we are grappling with come back to people and their behaviour. 

It’s not enough to create a policy, raise awareness or think that people will simply obey scientific recommendations; a quick look around at the way COVID-19 has played out is a great illustration of that. Our social worlds and our human behaviour is messy and influenced by a multitude of factors - gender, race, class, identity, income, family, social networks, to name a few. Social scientists are the ones equipped with the training, skills and knowledge that can bridge how people are in the real world, with the contemporary challenges facing the science, technology, engineering and maths experts. All sciences need the social sciences.

At a time when our Federal Government has been citing incorrect statistics about the employment rates of social science graduates and proposing massive fee hikes for humanities and social science students, it seems our politicians have missed the point. The key to a sustainable future for Australian industry and society is not a STEM vs Humanities approach. We aren’t in competition and experts from both fields are seeking more ways to collaborate and integrate our respective expertise and knowledge, not drive them further apart. As this letter from Australia’s most senior researchers points out: “Bracketing the humanities and social sciences as a category deemed less useful for future employment flies in the face of what we see among leaders in both politics and business”. I would add here - and is directly in opposition to STEM researchers desire to employ more social scientists on their research projects because of the value they bring to ensuring real world impacts and outcomes beyond the lab.

I’ve been a social scientist for more than 20 years now. It has taken me all over the world and literally into the lives of others. My social science degree changed the way I see the world because once you’ve been taught to observe human behaviour and what makes us human, it’s nearly impossible to switch off. I don’t wear a lab coat, but I’m still a scientist.

This Social Sciences Week, do yourself a favour and get involved with one of the dozens of free, online events occurring across Australia. High school teachers can still book a free guest speaker or use of the podcast episodes to bring an expert virtually into the classroom, and the imaginations of your students.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Sarina Kilham, contact Rebecca Akers at Charles Sturt Media on 0456 377 434 or news@csu.edu.au

The Graham Centre is a research alliance between Charles Sturt University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries.



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