Scientific Conceit Revisited.
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.