Over at DrugMonkey, PhysioProf delivers a mission statement:
Our purpose here at DrugMonkey is to try to help people identify and cultivate the tools required to succeed within the system of academic science as it currently exists. We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to “take it down”. We do the best we can to help the people we train in our own labs to succeed within this system, and we try to share some of our insights here at the blog.
In a winner-take-all system like this, there will always be people who do not succeed through no fault of their own. People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail. This is the nature of a winner-take-all system: there is an intrinsic randomness that influences to some extent who succeeds and who fails. It is the same in professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.
Many of us may not like this situation, but this is how things currently work. Academic science is not a … Care Bears tea party, and wishing that it were is not going to make it so.
I think this is a fine statement of purpose for a blog. But I think the community of academic science could — and should — set its sights higher.
The system of academic science as it exists now is not how academic science always was, nor how it will be forever more. Institutions — even those with complex bureaucracies — change.
Indeed, these institutions are made up of people, many of them scientists (or administrators who used to spend significant portions of their time doing science). Granted, there are also many people who are part of the institution of academic science who are not themselves scientists (and there are people outside these institutions, like elected officials, who can have a big effect on funding streams). However, there are scientists involved in steering the ship of academic science.
There are probably very few individuals who could, by themselves, “take down” the system or make far reaching changes in it. The coordinated efforts of many people, however, might have a profound effect.
To the extent that the project of science has certain goals that are supposed to be non-negotiable (like building a body of reliable knowledge about various bits of the world), there are certain institutional arrangements that may well be bad ones within which to do science. If there is reason to suspect that particular aspects of academic science as it exists now encourage behaviors that run counter to the aims of scientific work, it is worth examining those institutional features carefully and figuring out how to fix them.
This hard work should not fall on the shoulders of any one scientist in the community. It certainly shouldn’t become the sole responsibility of scientific trainees to clean up institutional structures that they did not create. But if scientists are serious about doing science in an academic setting, there may be flaws with the system as it exists now that we ignore at our peril.
I have no problem with PhysioProf and DrugMonkey focusing their attention on helping scientific trainees figure out how to do good science — and achieve professional success — in the system as it exists now. But I don’t think this focus means that other scientists, especially those with the career success and attendant prestige to throw their individual weight around, should excuse themselves from the responsibility to examine how the system works now and to evaluate whether it can be counted on to produce the body of solid knowledge we expect from it. If certain features of the system tend to undermine the scientific goals, it’s in every scientist’s interest to have them fixed.