Nature’s cultural blindspot

Reposted from my Ronin Institute blog post

A recent editorial in NatureYoung scientists thrive in life after academia” on the future of careers for today’s scientists is on one hand, both optimistic, but on the other, deeply unsatisfying. The editorial is clearly well-intentioned, providing what it sees as a hope for a generation of new scientists facing the worse funding climate and academic job market in decades. I agree with the editors that it is encouraging that people with PhDs and long periods of training are finding gainful employment.

However the editorial has what might be called a cultural blindspot: the default assumption that doing research science is largely an activity that one undertakes only within a specific set of jobs performed in certain institutions and once you’re out of those institutions, there’s both no way to continue, nor any way back.  Of those who moved out of academic positions it says:

Many had managed to stay in touch with science, and worked in a related function such as administration, outreach or publishing.

This strikes me as a disempowering message: the best one can hope for is “to stay in touch with science”[1]. Is this really the most we can do for those who have spent many years acquiring skill and knowledge of a subject? Is doing science really like a step function: all or nothing? To be fair, the editorial doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s all in the subtext.

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After reading Nature‘s description of the real struggles of today’s scientists:

The hours, the workload, the instability of postdoc positions, the expectations, the low pay, the pressure and competition, the lack of opportunities and the fear of failure: all can combine to make the early-career years difficult indeed.

One might be tempted to ask, why are academic institutions of science like that? Do they need to be? Maybe we should change them? And perhaps the institutions should adapt to the people working in them, rather than the other way around?  A recent article on the the news side of Nature “the scientific 1%” makes it clear just how much concentration of wealth and prestige in a small number of institutions and groups leads to this intense competition and pressure. Maybe that’s a good place to start reform?

These are questions that the Nature editorial does not seem prepared to tackle. Instead the focus is on more “honest career advice”, as if the institutions themselves are fixed and unreformable. Nature also subtly reinforces its own place in this hierarchy:

More than three-quarters of them had published as a principal author and one-fifth had published a paper in a high-impact journal such as Nature.

Essentially, if these scientists published in Nature, they must be good! This elides Nature’s role in buoying an incentive system based upon an artificial scarcity of “slots” in highly prestigious journals. A system that that indirectly perpetuates the academic rat-race and the concentration of resources that has made aspects of research in academic environments so unpleasant in the first place.

Towards the end of the editorial, we start getting a little closer to a more expansive view of the situation in the discussion of different paths:

Science should wish them well. As Nature has pointed out before, a regular flow of bright, highly trained and scientifically literate workers heading into the wider world can only benefit society and science. It is time to normalize these sideways steps, and for universities, senior scientists and research funders to accept and embrace the different paths that young researchers choose to follow.

This is a more open-minded view, but it still begs the question: why wait for these gatekeepers to approve or “normalize” these paths?  Scientists can collectively empower themselves. Because traditional academia is highly hierarchical this notion is in Nature’s cultural blindspot [2].

Ultimately we need a broader cultural shift that decouples the activity of science from specific institutions. Academic institutions may “wish them well”, but “science” cannot, because there is nobody who can speak for science as a whole, not Nature, not career advisors, not academic institutions, not even the Nobel Prize Committee. This is because nobody owns science. We don’t expect artists’ to drop doing art if they don’t land a position at an art museum or residency at a gallery, they keep doing their art. Yet this is the commonplace expectation in science. An editorial which explores ways of both reforming the existing system to be more humane, and examines ways to empower all scientists to continue to do science, who may never be, nor ever want to be, university-based professors, that values contributions regardless of affiliation or job title, now that’s an editorial I’d like to read.


[1] Many will point out that, of course, people outside traditional academic positions still publish papers, and do scientific work. Those working in biotech or pharma companies, might continue publish middle-author papers with a dozen co-authors. Or a scientist working at a conservation nonprofit might help contribute to a paper the data analysis of an ecological project in a collaboration with an academic. That’s not what I mean: I mean curiosity-driven research that is independently-initiated while not employed at an academic institution. Nobody will stop you doing research absent a standard institutional affiliation, but everything about the current funding and publication system will either passively or actively work against those who choose to work “outside” (See Richard Lewontin’s “Legitimation is the Name of the Game“).

[2] I don’t mean to minimize the financial aspects and need for jobs and income: between the postdoc crisis, the over-reliance of adjuncts and the increasing neoliberal corporatization of universities in general, all of which we have discussed here on the Ronin blog, most scientists’ immediate concerns is continuing to pay the bills while doing their work. But in a world in which steady, predictable career paths may disappear in general, we can’t only think of institutions and job titles, as even the notions of early, mid and late career are likely to change radically in the coming years. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily all good. I wouldn’t want all institutions and universities to just melt away for example, but a world in which only a few get stability and all the goodies and the rest do not isn’t so great either. There is an extreme libertarian, and undesirable, version of this future in which there is a Hunger Games-style race to the bottom, with an even more wealth inequality. But there is potential progressive version of this future, sketched out most compelling by economist Guy Standing in which basic economic security would be provided via, amongst other things, something like a universal basic income. This is a subject I discussed briefly in a previous blog post.

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