Charles Dickens’ Yuletide classic “A Christmas Carol” is all about how the curmudgeonly Scrooge learns to lighten up and let the festive spirit in. But what would it be like if Scrooge was a scientist?
Here’s TIR‘s take on what some of the characters might be like… (can you find them in Oliver’s picture?)
An influential professor with a big reputation, but who has long since stopped enjoying research or science. Obsessed with publishing in “high impact” journals, and envious and suspicious of his colleagues. He exploits the young scientists in his group, many of whom quit academia altogether. One in twenty gets a “high impact” paper, which ensures a steady stream of new recruits to the lab.
A seventh-year postdoc whose dreams of scientific independence have slowly been eroded under the strain of working for Scrooge. Has no first-author paper from his time in the lab, and is beginning to realise that Scrooge may have damaged his career beyond repair. Remains blithely optimistic about the future, mainly by not thinking too hard about it.
The ghost of Jacob Marley
Scrooge’s former collaborator and co-conspirator. Now condemned to walk around chained to an Elsevier subscription bundle for all eternity. He appears to Scrooge on Christmas eve to warn him to change his ways, and encourage him to sign up to the San Francisco Declaration.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
A spirit from the dawn of molecular biology. The ghost shows Scrooge some of his old lab books, reminding him of a time when he too was an enthusiastic and happy young scientist, interested more in advancing knowledge than outcompeting and destroying his peers.
Scrooge’s postdoc mentor, a kind and farsighted group leader who empowers his postdocs and retired in his 60s so that his faculty position could go to someone younger.
Scrooge’s beautiful and gifted girlfriend from his postdoc days. She leaves him when he starts placing his career needs above her own.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
A jocular and heavy-drinking figure, who’s enjoying the party for as long as it lasts. Inside his gown are two hideous and emaciated PhD students named Ignorance and Funding.
Scrooge’s nephew, a junior professor, who has had great good fortune but believes his successes are wholly due to skill rather than luck. Disparages younger scientists for not trying hard enough, and enjoys writing withering reviews of papers under cover of anonymity.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
A ghastly spectre with a bleak and forbidding warning. Shows Scrooge a future in which public trust in science is eroded by the Reproducibility Crisis, and hypercompetition for funding makes career outcomes a lottery. Whole research areas die off as no new groups are formed, while grade inflation renders incoming students unfit for purpose. The research edifice crumbles under the weight of metrics.
An enthusiastic and cheerful undergraduate, keen to become a scientist. Scrooge is warned by the Ghost of Christmas Present that Tiny Tim’s career will die unless things change for the better.
(At the novella’s end, Scrooge is converted to a true believer in Christmas and is celebrated for his humanity for concern for his fellows.)
A Merry Christmas to all our readers!