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Managing the Scientific Multitudes

Tomorrow's Research

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Despite [being] equally competitive or more knowledgeable in their subject areas, foreigners are still looked at as second-grade scientists/citizens and discouraged from becoming independent


The posting below looks at some of the issues that exist in laboratories with collaborators from many different cultures. It is taken from The Scientist - The News Journal of the Life Scientist, [], 15[19]:31, Oct. 1, 2001 ? Copyright 2001, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: On the Internet: Thinking in Action

Tomorrow's Research

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International scientists infuse labs with new ideas, but misunderstandings occur

By Paula Park

A US university postdoc loses track of a cuvette and spews invectives at a Chinese coworker. That night the Chinese colleague, quaking in an apartment, tearfully telephones the principal investigator. Would the postdoc attack with a gun, as seen on so many US television programs?

A PI assigns an Armenian man and a Russian woman to a project. Before a day passes, she declares she won't work with her Armenian partner. The frustrated PI finally convinces her that in America "we all work together," and the battle ends.

The names of these combatants have been withheld, but their stories, though extreme, exemplify the conflicts that can arise in life science laboratories peopled with researchers of all nations. "I can't say that we're always a homogenous fun family here," says Robert Nakamoto, assistant professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville whose lab employs Russian, Japanese, US, Zimbabwean, Taiwanese, and Chinese workers. He prefers working in an international setting, but he says, "Some of the conflicts have surprised me."

Such conflicts can turn a lab like Nakamoto's into a Tower of Babylon where a duty as simple as sending assays by overnight mail can become an epic task for the English-language challenged, according to researchers who responded to The Scientist survey "Working in a Multinational Laboratory". Cultural differences in style, expectations, and work attitudes can create misunderstandings that impede the flow of information and the development of science, survey participants report. More serious, a raft of foreign-born scientists now floats from lab to lab, never gaining access to tenure-track academic positions or high-paying work in the private sector.

"Despite [being] equally competitive or more knowledgeable in their subject areas, foreigners are still looked at as second-grade scientists/citizens and discouraged from becoming independent," Ghanshyam Das Heda, a scientist at the University of Tennessee Medical School writes in response to the survey.

Yet, the overwhelming majority of participants, including Heda, say ideas flourish in an international setting and work styles from other countries help keep US scientists on their toes. "Science is fundamentally a way of thinking and people from other countries think differently," says Fergus Byrne, an Irish-born scientist at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Foreign-born scientists like Byrne have become key instruments of US scientific innovation, the participants report; and statistics bear them out. One-quarter of life scientists were from foreign countries in 1997, the latest year of available statistics, according to Science and Engineering Indicators 2000 by the National Science Foundation.1 India is the largest exporter of scientific talent to the United States, accounting for 12 percent of the foreign-born workforce, the indicators report says. Nine percent were from China, the second largest group. Some researchers say this group now predominates. University deans and department heads contacted by The Scientist indicate that the cadre of foreign-born researchers has swelled since 1997 as the numbers of their US counterparts have contracted.

"We have come to the era where the world believes the best science, in aggregate, is happening in the United States," says Steven Goldstein, associate dean for research and graduate studies, University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Goldstein was not a survey participant. Other countries produce giants in science, he adds. "[But] it has come to the point that if foreign scientists want to advance their career in their own countries, having on their resumes that they've spent time in the United States is a very critical issue."

Getting Past Language Barriers

Advancing that career may require language skills that foreign graduate students lack. Though the majority of survey participants report that language differences had only a marginal effect on conduct of experiments, for example, 27.1 percent of 96 participants reported that language differences influenced communication with supervisors; 29.2 percent said they had some effect on social interactions. "Differences in language skills result in miscommunication more often than expected," writes one participant. "People tire of having to ask for clarification more than once, so they just give up and go with what they understood, even if it is wrong." Scientific acronyms that flow like water from the mouths of US scientists can swamp a non-English speaker. At one conference, for example, some foreign researchers thought BLYS, the acronym for the B Lymphocyte Stimulator, referred to the state of mind, Byrne recalls.

Anyone who has tried to master a foreign language can perhaps recall his own painful bouts with confusing synonyms like those replete in the English language. But such befuddlement can have tremendous impact on a scientist's career--or a lab's ability to influence the international body of scientific knowledge. "A lot of Japanese and Chinese labs miss out purely because of language--they miss out on collaborations with US institutes," Byrne says. "The [writers of] journal articles are nearly always criticized... for not using better English. I'm sure they do better than any journal editor who would try to speak Japanese or Chinese...."

The science itself creates a common currency, but when scientists work together they must talk about their findings and that requires mutual understanding. "In the lab... you spend most of your time not really talking to anybody," says David Hirschberg, a research and development scientist at Agilent Technologies, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "You have to report your results and that's where the intuitiveness of the manager comes in. He has to figure out how to communicate [results] to people."

Language problems can mask cultural expectations: One professor at a Midwestern University says she tells her foreign-born lab workers that in the United States it isn't customary to copy more than three or four words from a published article. She also is contemplating lecturing her US students on the harm created by angry outbursts. "Americans think that anger and a temper tantrum in public is an okay thing to do and the Chinese never do that," the professor says.

Does Research Suffer?

According to the survey, some foreign-born participants fret about the quality of US research in labs where the competition for money and prestige rules and the scientific method is sometimes cast into an inferior position. "I lost my trust in science for awhile," writes Nese Akis, a non-tenured Turkish scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and Wistar Institute, of her stint in a US lab.

One researcher who admires the availability of technology and equipment in the United States cites the disadvantages of the competitive US lab environment: "no patience for long-term, detailed investigation; too much focus on publication and funding level. Aggressiveness/showmanship [not necessary from good sciences] is highly encouraged!"

A half-dozen foreign-born survey participants--all from Asian countries--complain their nationalities handicap them in the job market. "I consider myself to be loyal to my new country--USA," writes a Chinese researcher. "However, there are times I have the feeling that I am still treated as 'outsider.' There are certain 'glass ceilings' due to my national origin."

Foreign postdocs, in particular, often are expected to work longer hours for less pay than their US counterparts. Michael Sweetland, a former chemistry postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh reports that his foreign colleagues earned only about three-quarters of his pay. "I was making $900 a month--$10,800, and there were guys with PhDs from other countries, particularly Orientals, who were being paid $9,000 a year," he says. "They were living three to a room. They would never eat out and enjoy the company of other people. It was disheartening."

A foreign graduate's ability to move out of such a low-paying job can turn on the quality of advice from mentors, says Goldstein. Some PIs set up dual work systems: Foreign scientists considered gifted will receive ample support; the others may be treated as lab hands. Goldstein says he encourages professors to be good mentors to all by recognizing the best ones and stripping the worst of their privileges as advisers.

Nancy Berman, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Kansas encourages foreign students and professionals to find out how people from their own countries have succeeded and follow their footsteps. "People complain 'I didn't get this opportunity:' there's no such thing. In science you have to make it yourself."

Paula Park can be reached at

1. National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2000, Washington, D.C. pp. 3.25-3.28.