Answering the why question might go deeper than you think

Why am I a scientist?

If you ask scientists why they conduct research, they often give the grandest of reasons: curing diseases, ending world hunger, or ending our dependence on fossil fuels. I found out you can be in science with a relatively smaller goal, and that that’s okay.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Before the summer, I followed a workshop on science communication with my research group. Here it was emphasised that if you want to communicate clearly about your research, you should know why you conduct research. Providing a satisfying answer to that question proved to be more difficult than I thought.

Intrinsic motivation

The idea behind knowing the ‘why’ of your story is that it helps you to show people why you are enthusiastic about your research, so that they can see why your research is important. You’re actually trying to explain your intrinsic motivation to others, so they can become enthusiastic as well.


The technique behind finding the answer to that ‘why’ question is not even that complicated. Find a friend and explain to them what the topic of your research is. Their only task is asking you, again and again: why? If you do this often enough, you’ll find the core of your motivation. Some why questions are relatively easy to answer. Why is it important that we know how the brain works? Well, in order to better treat patients with brain disorders, for example. Even relatively specific why questions (‘Why should we find out what part of the periaqueductal gray receives signals from the amygdala?’) can be traced back to an overarching goal. However, my personal answer to ‘why’ went deeper than I had imagined.

Me, myself, and I

After careful consideration I found that my intrinsic motivation is not beautiful or noble at all. The deepest reason that I conduct research is very simple, maybe even a little selfish. I just want to know how things work.

Don’t get me wrong; it would be amazing if the results of my experiments led to the cure of a disease or if they inspired therapies, but that’s not why I do it. Most of all, my motivation comes from the fact that I’m just curious about how people and their brains work. In some way, I’m doing everything for myself. And that sounds a little worse than curing diseases. But is that a problem?

It doesn’t matter what the source of your passion is

As far as I’m concerned, the answer to that question is: no, it does not matter if you’re a ‘selfish’ scientist. Yes, my intrinsic motivation for science is mostly aimed at gathering knowledge, but that does not mean it isn’t of any use to the world. As long as you, as a scientist, remain true to scientific methods and publish your findings in (public) journals, your research can always contribute to collective knowledge and finally lead to big breakthroughs. In that case, it doesn’t matter what the source of your passion is.

Author: Felix
Buddy: Angelique
Editor: Jill
Translator: Wessel
Editor Translation: Marisha

Original language: Dutch

Picture obtained from geralt via Pixabay

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