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Scientific Conceit Revisited.

24 July 2013

One of my more popular posts has been on Scientific Conceit. Recently the issue has been popping up again on the twitter-place. A scientist was saddened to learn that her post-doc had taken a position outside of science, apparently at least in part so that she could go live in another city with her significant other. This was described as a “waste”. Not too long ago, when one of my friends tweeted about relaxing on the weekend, a drive-by scientist snarkily commented that it was surprising a scientist had any time off. Also making the rounds is a piece on Scientific American about getting tenure at Harvard while working reasonable hours and raising children, which to me reads more like bragging than a how-to.

There is a fundamental myopia in academia and science. The idea that the only success for a scientist, for an academic, is as a tenure-track professor at a major research university. And there is derision and contempt for those who make other choices. Frankly, the only place I’ve seen it rivaled for passive-aggressive condemnation of others’ choices is the so-called “Mommy Wars”. Nowhere else in life that I’ve found are people so eager to tell other people that they are failures, wastes, also-rans, and has-beens.

Now, I’ve never been on the tenure-track, so I don’t know what the supposed benefits are other than intangible prestige. But nearly everyone I know who is has significant dissatisfaction with broad swaths of the job description. whether teaching, grantsmanship, publishing, administration, or a combination, I don’t know anyone who comes across as simply satisfied with being on the tenure-track. I could be wrong. I hope that if I am, people will comment about their satisfaction level here.

But here’s what I know. I have been a professional scientist/engineer, responsible for grant-writing and publishing in an academic setting. I ended up doing precious little actual science. Most of my time was consumed writing more grants. And most of the people I know spend most of their time writing grants. It’s rewarding to win a grant. Hell, it’s thrilling and exciting and wonderful and being able to say that I have been a federally-funded principal investigator is something I’m proud of and conceited about. But all it really got me was the opportunity to write more grants.

I know that the difference between successful scientists and unsuccessful scientists, when comparing those who make the tenure-track or equivalent position, is down to simple luck. Everyone in a position to submit a grant application as PI is good. Those that are funded are those which happen to find sympathetic reviewers, or those in a position of privilege. We all have a tendency to think of our successes as deserved. But it’s been proven over and over again that we take internal credit for luck as if it were skill. I’m no better than someone I “beat out” for a grant. I’m just lucky. I’m lucky that I happened to study something currently fundable. I’m lucky that I got reviewers who understood or were intrigued by my topic.

I’m unlucky that I had an administration that was actively hostile toward research. With another round of submission, I firmly believe based on my last score that I would be funded. I was lucky that I got well reviewed and had a constructive review to respond to. But my administration decided they weren’t interested in supporting my department and so off I went. Where I’ve landed I’m far, far better positioned that I would be in any purely academic post. I get to do applied research and contribute to the literature while not subject to the vagaries of grant-review.

As for “wasting” talent? I get it. I do. Suppose the person were a brilliant concert pianist, and left music to go work in another field. I can see her teacher thinking she’d “wasted” her talent. But here’s the deal: we all get to choose how we pursue our own lives. And telling people that they’re wasting their talent, or failures for not going on to the tenure track, or because they weren’t lucky in grant review? That’s plain viciousness. It’s an attempt to raise one’s self by denigrating people arbitrarily choosen to be considered “less than”.

I’m going to go further: it is easier to be a productive scientist and make an important contribution outside of traditional academia. Universities have become so parasitic to grant money that federal budgets are thoroughly insufficient to support the volume of scientists we have capable of making good contributions. And universities are uninterested in footing part of the bill. As a result, fine scientists cannot participate, and those that are lucky enough to succeed spend the majority of their time writing applications rather than doing science.

In industry, a scientist can make important and direct contributions without being slave to grant funding. Academics often claim that industry scientists don’t get to work on their own ideas. But neither do academics. Everyone has to work on an idea that someone with money is interested in supporting. If you’re lucky enough that your ideas are in the funding agency’s wheelhouse, you’re lucky indeed. Otherwise, you have to change your focus. The only thing that academia offers that industry (often) doesn’t is publishing. We all claim that it’s all about the science. Bullshit. We want credit and fame and respect. Me too. Why do you think I insisted on being able to publish in my current position?

Academia is run by cannibals. At every level. Administrators feed on scientists. Established scientists feed on pipeline youngsters. It doesn’t have to be this way. But it won’t change until people demand that the culture changes, the funding changes, the pipeline changes. Until then, it will continue to be an extractive system, churning though people. Consuming and regurgitating some, turning others into the monsters they decry.

If you want to do great science, stay in academia through a post-doc and then get the hell out.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 July 2013 12:58

    This is dead on. I transitioned from an academic postdoc to an industry job (I’m not exactly a scientist anymore, but I’m still thinking about and talking about science a whole lot), and the idea that academics are somehow vastly more “free” than industry folks has always struck me as a joke.

    People who make a successful career in academia do so by:
    1) Gaining a deep understanding of exactly the type of science that journal editors, NIH study sections, department chairs, etc., find to be desirable, and then
    2) Tailoring their science accordingly.

    Academia can be a great gig. Some of my best friends are academics (I swear!). But many academics advance the idea that they are somehow different, purer, freer than the rest of us, because otherwise, it’s tough to justify to themselves why they continue in a career path that demands preposterous financial sacrifices.

  2. Syd permalink
    24 July 2013 15:57

    I was lucky enough to do both–being tenured and working at a research career. I don’t think those kind of gigs come around much any more. I think that it took about 7 years to get recognized in any way in my field. But I was lucky to have some heavy weight mentors who vouched for me and helped me enormously. The time and the place was right and the money was flowing freely back then, not in its current constipated form.

    Assholes have abounded in science. I don’t like to think that I was one of them, but on review panels I suppose I could be tough. I thought of myself as fair and not a smart ass, trying to break someone. You are so right about it being one life that we have and living it the best way that one can is laudable. I am sorry that I put up with some of the BS that I did, but probably the worst BS came from administrators who were promoted based on the Peter principle. I am glad to not have to fight those battles anymore. I was basically contrary to ordinary and that drove them crazy. I actually had one of my former colleagues tell me that the new director is going to be good because he has learned to be a “company man” and not rock the boat. That’s the kind of thinking that I hated–but most of those administrators seldom had an original idea so conformity was great to them.

    My suggestion is to follow your passion and don’t be afraid to speak up. Remember the lemmings went off the cliff. Dare to challenge and think originally.

  3. Geeka permalink
    24 July 2013 16:36

    I think that people in academia have a rather clouded view of industry. I have a 1:1 comparison for grants, funding and publish/perish. I have to compete for funding, I have to be cost conscious, I have to publish. What’s slightly worse, is that I don’t work on the same thing all the time, in academia it seems you spend your time on an increasingly narrow focus. So when I start feeling really comfortable about a subject, the ‘focus’ is on something else and I have to learn something new. The only real differences I see (aside from all the business lingo & we are further down the funding pipeline because academics have to spend for us to get money) is that we (generally) work our 9-5 (I work 6:30-4, but I take a walk in the middle of the day) and our PTO is structured out the ass.

  4. Jeff permalink
    3 August 2013 20:27

    research faculty used to have it great but funding is so difficult that i think a lot of folks will need to find new ways to pursue their interests. I really dislike someone else judging others life choices and i deplore folks bragging about how much they work. What does that mean, that you are not efficient? At the end of the day whatever you get to do for 40-50 hours a week better be fun because if u ain’t having fun most of the time then u are wasting your life not your talent.

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