American Scientist, Volume 97
How Do Scientists Really Use Computers?
Computers are now essential
tools in every branch of sci-
ence, but we know remarkably little
about how—or how well—scientists
use them. Do most scientists use off-
the-shelf software or write their own?
Do they really need state-of-the-art
supercomputers to solve their prob-
lems, or can they do most of what they
need to on desktop machines? And
how much time do grad students re-
ally spend patching their supervisors’
crusty old Fortran programs?
To answer these questions, my col-
leagues and I ran a Web-based survey
during the last two months of 200.
We were surprised and gratified that
almost 2,000 people took the time to
tell us what they were doing. We were
equally surprised by what they told us.
First, a few facts about who answered.
Thirty-one percent told us they were
from the United States, 20 percent
from Canada, and percent from the
United Kingdom. Germany and Nor-
way came next with 7 percent and 6
percent respectively, while the rest of
the world made up the remaining 2
percent. The high representation from
Canada and Norway reflects the fact
that my colleagues and I are based
there, while the low response rate from
areas such as Russia and East Asia is
undoubtedly due to the fact that we
only advertised the survey in English-
Thirty-three percent of respondents
were 1 to 30 years old; 35 percent
were 30 to 40, and 17 percent were 40
to 50. The remaining 15 percent were
over 50 or, in the case of 15 respond-
ents, didn’t answer. These figures are
consistent with reports about degrees:
Seventy-one percent had a Ph.D. or
equivalent, with 1 percent reporting
at least an M.Sc.
When asked to identify their roles,
over half of our 1,972 respondents
chose more than one category (be-
low)—which is probably an accurate
reflection of how many jobs working
scientists actually do.
Respondents’ descriptions of their