We Are Science

If you listen to people talking about (or read people blogging about) new ways of doing things, you’ll frequently hear references to Science or Academia as if they were vast but monolithic entities existing in their own right. Statements like “The culture of Science does not reward open access…” or “Modern Academia does not reward high-risk research…” are quite common. They also are often paired with a call for external relief, usually through some government mandate– “We need funding agencies to make this a condition of grant funding.”

I always find these statements faintly annoying, because they’re based entirely on a flawed premise. There is no “Science.” There is no “Academia.” These things do not exist as coherent entities, any more than “The Market” does.

There is no “Science.” What we think of as “Science” is the result of the individual actions of millions of scientists.

There is no “Academia.” What we think of as “Academia” is the result of the individual actions of millions of people working in higher education– faculty, deans, academic staff.

There are two main implications of these facts, the first being that if you really want to change scientific or academic culture, you need to change the minds of the people making up those cultures. You need to convince them that the things you want them to do are worth doing, and in their best interests to do.

This is a hard project, and it’s the reason why so many people are prone to calling for external mandates to change things. Getting the NSF or the NIH to order people to adopt your preferred behavior seems like an easier task than convincing the people directly. You only need to convince a few agency heads to change, and then, presto, everyone else will go along.

It’s a nice idea, but it’s nothing but a comforting illusion. The funding agencies won’t implement your policies for you, and even if they do, it won’t do any good. As Timo Hannay noted in his talk last week (microblogging, video), when the NIH requested that researchers deposit their data in the PubMed database, they got 4% compliance. Making it a requirement boosted that to something like 30%, but nowhere near 100%.

Or, for another example, consider the public outreach requirement of NSF grants. Researchers submitting grants to the NSF are required to include an explanation of what they will do to disseminate their results to a broader audience. I’ve reviewed a good number of NSF proposals over the last few years, and the striking thing about the public outreach sections is just how half-assed they are. Typical responses are of the form “We train a lot of graduate students in our lab, and some of them will go on to become educators,” which is a complete cop-out.

The fact is, any attempt by the NIH or any other agency to mandate these sorts of practices is nothing but a bluff that huge numbers of researchers will be happy to call. After all, are they really going to start denying funding based on a failure to meet public outreach requirements? Hardly. Especially when the bulk of the review work is done by other researchers in the field– if people in the field are not convinced that outreach or open access are things they ought to be doing, they’re not going to give it any weight in reviewing proposals, and those rules will be every bit as effective as speed limits on major highways, which not even the police bother to heed.

There is no way around the fact that changing scientific or academic culture requires changing the minds of the scientists and academics who make up those cultures. As lovely as it would be to wave a policy wand and have everything magically change overnight, it’s not going to happen.

The second important implication is this: If you want to change scientific or academic culture, you don’t have to wait for anybody else. There is no “Science,” there is no “Academia”– there are only scientists and academics. If you work in those fields, you can start changing them any time you want.

People will say “Hiring committees don’t look for the right things,” or “Tenure committees don’t reward risky research.” Here’s a secret for you, though: Hiring committees and tenure committees are made up of academics. If you are an academic, you can be on those committees– in fact, it’s kind of hard to avoid.

If you think that your institution should be hiring or promoting different sorts of people, get on the relevant committee and make the case for the change you’d like to see. Don’t sit around and wait for the NSF to do it for you– get in there and argue for what you’d like to see. You might not win right away, but you might change a few minds, and that’s a start. With a bit of persistence, you may be able to start to bring things around.

People will say “Grant agencies don’t fund the right kind of research,” or “The good journals are full of terrible papers.” Here’s another secret for you though: Grant reviewers and journal referees are drawn from scientists in the relevant fields. And they’re not exactly beating people back with sticks– if you want to review grants or referee papers, it’s not hard to get the opportunity.

If you think that grant agencies and journals should be funding or publishing different things, become a reviewer or a referee and make the case for the change you’d like to see. Demand re-writes to the papers, mark down the grants with half-assed outreach sections. You might not win right away, but you might change a few minds on the grant review panels and editorial boards. That’s the first step toward real progress.

People will say “The Ivy League schools set the agenda for all of academia; nothing will change unless Harvard changes.” Here’s a secret for you: If your school is not Harvard, it’s not likely to become Harvard. And you’ll certainly never catch them just by copying them.

Contrary to what they’ll tell you, the Ivies (and other equivalent institutions) do not have a monopoly on good ideas. They may have more money than your school does, but that doesn’t mean that everything they touch turns to gold.

If you would like to see things done in a different manner, don’t wait for Harvard to change– get out there, and make the case for the change you’d like to see in your own institution. To hell with Harvard– if you think something’s worth doing, then do it. If it’s as good an idea as you think, your institution can blaze a trail for everyone else, or at least make up some ground by attracting good people who like what you’re doing. If you do a good enough job, you may find other people copying you.

I’m a scientist and an academic, and many of my readers are scientists and academics. Together, we are Science, and we are Academia. What we do is not imposed on us by an unchangeable culture of Science; rather, the things we do determine the culture of Science.

We have the power to change the culture of Science and the culture of Academia, by changing our behavior, and making the case for other to change their behavior. In fact, that’s the only way to change the culture– the NIH won’t do it, the NSF won’t do it, the Ivy League won’t do it.

If we want change, we have to do it ourselves, which is a hard job. But here’s the thing: we can do it ourselves, because in the end, we are the thing that needs to change.

Comments

  1. #1 Becca
    September 15, 2008

    On the one hand, I adore ground-up change/grassroots activities. I also buy into the “you must become the change you want to see” meme.
    Also, your rah-rah “We are… SCIENCE!” amuses me.

    On the other hand, to be perfectly blunt, scientists are mostly skeptical old “get-off-my-lawn” men (and some women) who don’t really want to change. It’s an uphill battle. And time consuming.
    I think it’s important to be honest about that. Both sanity and success depend on balancing the idealism with some level of “how to work within the framework we have”. I’m still trying to figure out where my balance point is.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    September 15, 2008

    I agree with most of your points. This one especially deserves comment:

    People will say “The Ivy League schools set the agenda for all of academia; nothing will change unless Harvard changes.” Here’s a secret for you: If your school is not Harvard, it’s not likely to become Harvard. And you’ll certainly never catch them just by copying them.

    Absolutely. The most successful universities, whether you measure by research or teaching, follow their own path. Both my undergraduate institution and my Ph.D. institution make it a point of pride in marketing (certainly to prospective students and alumni, and presumably to other potential sources of money) that they are *not* Harvard, and they do some things differently from how Harvard does them. My present employer does a similar thing: rather than try to be good at everything they try to excel at a few things. This strategy has been largely successful for all three schools. As you say, you can never beat Harvard by imitating Harvard; their endowment will invariably leave you in the dust.

    As for your larger point, it is a hard problem. Academia is a self-perpetuating community, so it’s tempting for professors to hire and promote people like them, and let the ones who are not enough like them move into industry or government labs. I’m staff, not faculty, so there isn’t much I can do about it in my present position. If I were faculty, it would be as important as you say to get on hiring and promotion committees.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 15, 2008

    “Here’s a secret for you: If your school is not Harvard, it’s not likely to become Harvard.”

    I have two degrees from a first-rate university, equal to Harvard in each of several departments: Caltech. Nobody objective would have reasonably expected this in, say, 1920 (“Oh, you mean Millikan’s School”).

    Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford intended to donate a fortune to Harvard, but were kept cooling their heels, so they started their own university, named Stanford. It became equal to Harvard in many respects.

    I have one (nearly 3) degrees from a 2nd rate university: the University of Massachusetts. I do not expect it to become Harvard. But it exceeds Harvard in certain respects (i.e. Marxist History, Food Science, Basketball).

    I have been an adjunct Professor at 3rd rate colleges and universities (i.e. Cypress College, Woodbury University). Yet I would recommend Woodbury over Harvard for Fashion Design, or Architecture, or Animation.

    Just as there is no “Academia” as a monolith, so also is each school itself heterogenous; varying in strengths and weaknesses from division to division; within each division varing from department to department; within each department varying from good researchers to bad, from good teachers to bad.

    Anyone strongly agree or disagree?

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    September 15, 2008

    I should note that this is a longer and more strongly worded version of something I said at one point during the conference last week. The meeting was particularly prone to the “If we can get the NIH to…” version of things, with an additional strong current of “You can’t change anything, no matter what you do.”

    I refuse to believe that last– while it’s unquestionably a Hard Problem, it’s not futile to try. And, in fact, it’s probably easier to change academia than to change society at large, because academics are very slightly more likley to listen to reason.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    September 15, 2008

    One other note: this is precisely why I included a fairly specific list of things you can do to improve the standing of science with the general public in my talk– slide 21. They’re small steps, but every little bit helps, and it’s better to do something than nothing.

  6. #6 Costanza
    September 15, 2008

    You and I are in complete agreement. However, the impulse to call for such policy – driven reforms comes from poor understanding of the nature of “science” and “academia” by the general public. As one example, consider: on top of my other duties, I perform some “outreach activities” by tutoring home schoolers in rural areas in my county. One of my students was doing a research paper on open-access vs non – open – access. Her parents were amazed that this was even an issue; after all, if the research was federally funded, and thus derived from their taxes, why shouldn’t they have access to the results? I finessed the problem and left it as a task for the student. But you get the idea

  7. #7 Uncle Al
    September 15, 2008

    Any endeavor at scale begs Big Money. Nobody can be trusted with seven figures (who has the time?) so we have Management. Management is an ass – process not product – though theoretically consistent and benign.

    Management grows heavy (Gordon Gecko’s monologue, Wall Street) while it efficiently removes its nuisance underpinnings. Education is necessary to maintain Management of Academia. Damned kids. Grant funding manages Science. Screw junior faculty! What has posterity ever acomplished?

    You cannot change anything, for none of you is in charge.

  8. #8 Reginald
    September 16, 2008

    Honestly, I don’t know how Ivies are still the masters of the sciences. With the advances and breadth of new technology, you’d figure some of the “not so ivy but just as cool” would get ahead – like Notre Dame, Norhtwestern, Duke.

  9. #9 Brian
    September 16, 2008

    Nice post, and good comments. The only thing I’d add is that by getting on some of the committees you mention, you sometime find other people who want to make similar changes as you. Of course, you also sometimes find the people who want to keep everything the same too. It helps to find as many allies as you can wherever they might be.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 16, 2008

    Before students reach colleges and universities, they have either been encouraged by family, friends, and good teachers to major in sciences, or have been driven away from science by disnformation, indifference, and bad teachers.

    To ensure a continued stream of young women and young men into science classes in higher education, the readers of this blog are encouraged to get involved with their local elementary school, middle school, or high school. Offer to guest-lecture or give a science demonstration. Arrange a field trip at a cool science venue with which you are connected. Join the PTA or speak up at a school board meeting about the importance of science, or the dangers of intelligent design, or the like.

    Offer to demonstrate ScienceBlogs in the classroom, or to the science teachers.

    That’s my modest suggestion. I took a pay cut to leave higher education and teach science in my local high school. You need not make such drastic change, but a modest change can have huge payoff in the future.

  11. #11 Bee
    September 16, 2008

    I agree on science, what I mean with ‘academia’ if I use the word is simply employees working in governmental or private research institutes.

    I totally agree with you that one can change things bottom-up. That’s exactly the reason why it is so important that “the people” you are complaining about say the things they say. You don’t create change by keeping your mouth shut about what bothers you, you go and tell as many people as possible and ask them to think carefully whether their actions will have a desirable outcome – your post is an example for this. This works better the more people you reach with what you say.

    The other way to change things is top-down, and that’s where funding agencies become important. Personally, I’m more of the bottom-up kind, but moral hazard and inertia are hard to overcome. A top-down change, if successful, has often a larger and faster impact because people are forced to take it seriously.

  12. #12 Peter Morgan
    September 16, 2008

    Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying in 1980s Britain that there is no such thing as society, only people. A libertarian idea, more-or-less. However, Conservative British politicians now admit the needs of society as a participant in discussion (or something like that, it’s subtle, and now that I live in the US I don’t follow it closely, but the rhetoric has certainly changed).

    In solid state Physics, we could say that there is no crystal structure, only atoms, yet the precise configurations of atoms in the structure make enormous differences to the collective properties of the atoms, even to the point of the collective being solid, liquid, or gas.

    We don’t move the NIH (or the NSF) from one point of view to another, perhaps, but our ability to move individuals is modified by the NIH structure that contains the individuals. The allegiances and other relationships between scientists within the NIH have a more complex internal structure than bonds between atoms, and the hierarchical structure is different in nature, but just as for crystalline and other structures, some institutions are rigid and some are far looser, all moderated or more subtly affected by many other larger and smaller institutions. There are many ways to move the policies and capacities of an institution like the NIH, but whether an individual can do it is partially governed by their position in the structure. Still, if someone happens to be the brother of someone who plays golf with the head of the NIH, that may enough part of the structure to count.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.