The “slow movement” is a vast beast: there’s Slow Food, Slow Travel, Slow Money, and even, I kid you not, Slow Reading. These movements all begin with the premise that modern culture emphasizes ever increasing speed and convenience (cue the Eagle’s: “Listen, baby. You can hear the engine ring. We’ve been up and down this highway; haven’t seen a goddam thing.”) The prescribed medicine is a moderance in life. More smelling of the roses (but watch out for Ringo), more taking the long road, and most definitely more chewing your food slowly. While the movement suffers from large doses of overly nostalgic pastoralism, I find myself resonant with the slow movements search for a good pace and balance in how I try to live my life.
Thinking about this the other day (while chewing slowly, of course) I wondered, well, what about “Slow Science?” And like most thoughts you think might not have ever been thought, it turns out that this phrase has come up before: “Taking time to savour the rewards of slow science” Lisa Alleva, Nature 443, 271 (2006). To quote from the letter:
In shedding the ambition of my peers, I have discovered a secret: science, slow science, is perhaps the most rewarding and pleasurable pastime one could ever hope for. My supervisor’s lab is small — two postdocs only, with no teaching responsibilities. We are free to read the literature, formulate ideas and carefully plan our experiments so as to execute thoughtful strategies. We do not plough through genomes hoping to discover something interesting; we formulate a theory, and then we go in and test it.
Perhaps we are old-fashioned, but I feel my education as a scientist has benefited far more from my five years of slow science than the preceding five years of fast science. What’s more, we are on the brink of something big, exciting and wonderful, that spurs my slow science forever onwards.
So what about it? Who’s in for a slow science movement?
Okay, okay, first let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, if you look at my publication record, you might say, “Dave you’ve been performing slow science already!” And then, like all good anonymous commentors, you would follow that up with a smack in the face, “And look where that’s gotten you in your career! You just want slow science because you’re lazy!” My own situation is one reason I rarely post career advice on this blog (that and my strong belief that all advice is highly contextual and generalizations are what lead us into the stifling social norms which cause much of the problem in the first place.) But put that unfortunate background fact aside, and ignore the shouts of “lazy” from the slave driving biologists in the back of the room, and humor my daydreaming a little: what would the life and times of a “slow scientist” be like? What changes are needed to bring about a “slower science?” And would there really be benefits for this slowness?
How could one practice slow science? Well the first thing would be, of course, to “stop and smell the roses.” When is the last time that you didn’t have a deadline to meet and had time to actually reflect on your work, work at a pace not set by a deadline, and spend time deeply engaging in a subject, especially a subject not directly in you’re field of research? Slow science means, then, taking a day, a week, a month, a year, not just continuing on with the project you need to get finished because of the conference deadline coming up and your peers beating down the door to finish that journal article, but saying “it is more important to me that my work is not rushed, and is of high quality than it is to meet the deadlines which will get me more points on the great tenure meter in the sky.” Slow science means ignoring the rushing sound of papers flying off your colleagues desks and thinking: a leap is better than the random walk of a thousand small steps.
Does slow science mean working less? Well, I think, it could. But it could also mean changing your habits to avoid the detrimental rat race that exists in academia while not reducing how much you actually work. It’s not the hours that count but how your hours count. In a similar vein I would argue that the idea that one must be maniacally hard working to do good science or the idea that one must not be maniacally hard working to do good science are both two sides of a style of guiding our lives which is detrimental to good science. There are times when completely and totally absorbing yourself in your work is the only way you will make a step forward. There are times when you need to go outside and canoe around a lake to loosen up your neurons. These depend completely on circumstance but the most dangerous pill is the guilt that either is the right and only way to do good science. Slow science does not mean not working hard, it means working hard for the right reasons.
Slow science would, I think, also mean that you spend time savoring results. Yes, you could easily take that very cool result that your pal produced and tweak it a little such that you have another paper, but why take another bite when your next bite will be a sour patch in a field of sweet? Slow science would mean that you don’t kick yourself for missing the next step in a line of research. Savor the good papers, the good experiments, and, I think, you just might find that you understand more clearly what makes these papers and experiments so alive. This probably also means that a good part of slow science would be searching out the best of the best and sharing these results with all who are interested. I cannot tell you how many times my day has been made by a simple conversation about a new piece of science that a colleague or friend has shared with me.
Okay, so suppose that we want to move to a world with more slow science (big assumption!) How could we get there? One can, of course, approach how to change this from a variety of different viewpoints: scientists at major research universities, scientists at small liberal arts universities, scientists in industry or scientists living in their van on the beach in maui. I’ll take the perspective that I most closely know, scientists at major research universities, but I think some of what I say may carry across the divide. A (direct, logical) approach to thinking about this is to ask what is so hectic about the life of a modern scientist today? If you ask that to most professors, I’d wager the first response you get would be “grants,” the second response would be “teaching,” the third would be “publications”, the fourth response would be “committees,” and the fourth would be “managing a group.” Everyone, I’m sure, can come up with ways in which the above could be modified in order to promote slow science. I’ll just venture into one relm, grants.
One thing I’ve never understood about the grant making process is, at least from my perspective, the inflexibility of the system to deal with the timescales involved in doing good science. For example, most of the programs I apply to at the NSF work on a three year time period. Now there is definitely something to be said for deadlines, but is it really true that every single research project should be set on a three year timeline? I certainly think that doing really groundbreaking work usually takes much longer, in part because a requirement for such work is often exploring more dead ends that more routine science. It would go a long way towards promoting slow science to have longer grants for the more speculative (but well motivated) research programs. Such a lengthening would, I’m sure, make these grants highly competitive, but at the same time this would give huge opportunities to promote projects that think beyond the three year time horizon.
Certainly there are other ways in which one could attempt to move to a world in which slow science is more the norm. But the big question lurking in the background is: why in the world would you want to do this? I mean, look, I went to Caltech. I know something about working long hours. The point here isn’t about the hours. The point is about how you approach your overall goal of doing science. The rat race causes a lot of harm in the actual progress of science. Indeed, when I go over my list of people I admire for doing great science, I would argue that a vast majority of these people are already practicing slow science of some form. I don’t want to name names, but I do ask you to consider your scientific heros and to think about how they approach their science. Certainly when I think about these people they often show a lack of concern with the metrics so heavily touted for achieving academic success.
All right so you made it to the end of this particularly badly motivated diatribe. Sometimes its just fun to throw out an idea and let the vultures eat. Soon, I’m guessing, this post will be ripped to shreds. Which is fine by me, as the ripping and the tearing and what with the feathers flying everywhere is exactly the kind of example I’d like to see of why slow science isn’t such a crazy idea.