After enduring years of steady erosion of their funding, pay, career opportunities and work/life balance, it's great to see academic researchers taking things into their own hands and getting behind a truly grassroots organization like Future Of Research (FOR) that was founded in October 2014 to address these issues. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this year's symposium and what follows are my thoughts on what I heard there and where things stand for academic researchers, a year on from the launch of FOR.
I'm not going to reproduce all of the sombre statistics that were presented, illustrating the extent to which the working conditions for academic researchers in the U.S. have deteriorated under a system that rewards the worst kind of aggressive individualism while paying lip service to ideas like collaboration and collective effort. And all of this while trying to squeeze more and more out of researchers in return for low pay, low status and poor career opportunities.
Let me state from the outset that the opinions that follow are entirely my own. I have no affiliation with the Future of Research. I would say that for me, the 2015 FOR Symposium was enjoyable in parts but also disappointing, mainly for the following reason: Despite the general consensus that the current academic research system is broken and unsustainable, the great majority of the content presented at the symposium focused upon how researchers can optimize their career prospects within this broken system, rather than trying to change the system or seek alternatives to it.
For me, the symposium was not really so much about the "Future Of Research" as it was an attempt to present a survival manual for the current crisis.
This is not to say that any of this isn't well-intentioned or laudable, but I feel that it misses the essential point of trying to forge a better future for researchers. There is already an entire industry of recruiters, coaches and consultants built around helping researchers navigate the current system, and I felt that recycling this material, however well-intentioned, was not really in the spirit of FOR's stated goals of improving the scientific endeavor.
I would also like to make another observation that I feel is directly germane to the choices made by the organizers of the FOR symposium. My overwhelming impression of the general sentiment amongst the academics who were present, is one of helplessness and disempowerment; a feeling that there is an 'establishment' composed of a relatively select group of gatekeepers who hold the keys to everything, and without whose help and blessing, nothing meaningful can be done to improve the current situation. From such a perspective, it is much easier to contemplate seeking permission to act (hopefully with the approbation of this establishment), rather than taking the much harder path of trying to change things.
I do not accept the argument that one researcher voiced to me, that this is just a kind of pragmatic wisdom that offers a better chance of success because it's based upon a more realistic perspective of how things are.
These establishment gatekeepers – the academic journals, the NIH, college admission and tenure committees etc. etc. etc. dominated the conversation either in absentia, or in the case of the journal publishers, actually in the room. I have to confess that I was somewhat perplexed by the organizers' decision to give a platform to the publisher Cell Press. As a corporation that takes publicly-funded research and puts a paywall around the results, they are much more a part of the current problem than they are any part of its solution. They also play a big role in the kind of self-fulfilling career inequalities born of insidious metrics like 'impact factors' and the awful 'publish or perish' mentality that makes academic research such a miserable experience for so many really good and gifted researchers.
Even worse, most of the publishing industry panelists on the stage proceeded to school the attendees on their expectations for how manuscripts should be prepared and submitted, while disingenuously engaging in the charade that this was all to the benefit of the researchers. Even the research faculty panelists who sat on the stage with the publishers, wasted little time in perpetuating the notion that there is only one way that you succeed in academic research and that it involves playing by the publishers' rules.
Despite the presence of The Winnower and Faculty Of 1000 in the panel, who were beacons of hope in this otherwise rather depressing portion of the symposium, it was disheartening to see the academic publishing status quo going relatively unchallenged. Indeed, this part of the program seemed to be a thinly veiled message from the traditional publishers to all present, that this is just how things are and you will really need to get with the program if you're to have any chance of success in your academic career. All of this passing I would add, with little or no serious discussion of other, better ways to do things.
Status quo: 1, Alternatives: 0
For all of this polite acceptance of the way things are and willingness to 'play nice' with it, there were one or two moments during the symposium in which some of the braver souls did step up and make impassioned pleas for something better – for example (and I'm paraphrasing): "How can we change things so that academic research is no longer a system of abuse?" and: "How are postdocs supposed to start a family when their compensation during what would be their child-bearing years, is so dismally low that it essentially excludes the possibility?"
I was really horrified when a tenured faculty member on the panel actually suggested that this latter issue is not really a problem since the postdoc (a woman in this case) always has the option to leave academia and find a career path more conducive to starting a family.
Another tenured faculty member on the panel dismissed the postdocs' grievances by suggesting that the whole sorry state of affairs was just the result of the fact that we live in a capitalist society with free markets (and therefore, that we should presumably just accept things the way they are).
Status quo: 10, Alternatives: 0
Start to see a theme here?
It has been my experience that it is generally a waste of time to make an appeal to change the system, to those who have been raised up by the system and who are its beneficiaries. This is what drives my overwhelming feeling about what could be done to improve things for researchers and now if you'll bear with me, I would like to connect the dots that integrate this idea with an issue raised in one of the more worthwhile portions of the symposium – the panel on diversity.
As one of the diversity panel rightly pointed out (and again, I'm paraphrasing here), by the time you're considering diversity at the graduate school or postdoctoral level, you're already at the tip of a huge iceberg beneath which much of the diversity race has already been run. The inequalities start at a very young age in the public schools and whether you're a woman, or of minority race, or gay – the number of you still left in the race, has already been greatly depleted by years of systematic bias. How do you even start to address the diversity issue in your research department when only 1 applicant in 200 is a minority? For sure you can and should do everything in your power support diversity at this level, but sadly, much of the damage is being done long before the graduate school, postdoctoral or faculty hiring process.
And here's where we can connect the dots with regard to the current situation in academic research and the mindset of those who participate in it. One of the diversity panelists (a woman) really nailed it when she said that her boss, an older, white male, had certain expectations for the way that a female colleague should behave and express herself. Remaining silent with regard to her (very legitimate) grievances on how she was being treated as a woman in the workplace was essentially 'rewarded', but of course, under such circumstances nothing changes for the better. Airing those grievances on the other hand, was considered unseemly and overly aggressive in a way that it would not have been if she were a man. This behavior would also most likely result in the proverbial blot on her career copybook – a Catch-22 if ever there was one.
Which brings me to what I consider is the crux of the issue for academic research.
We really need to be exploring alternatives to the current system rather than trying to reform it.
It's sad but true I think, that the great majority of those old, white guys* in positions of authority and influence, are just not going to help in any effort to dismantle what has gotten them (and keeps them) where they are. Now granted that this is an extreme analogy, but imagine the starving workers in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, knocking on the Russian tsar's palace door and politely asking that he and his nobles please address the current inequalities that are keeping them in poverty. In effect this is exactly what they did, and the response was brutal!
To be absolutely clear, I'm trying to make a point here with my tongue very firmly in my cheek, and of course I'm not advocating any kind of bloody revolution. But the current situation for scientific research is grave and I believe that what it does call for are the kind of alternatives that might be termed 'revolutionary' – revolutionary in the way that YouTube has transformed communication and self-expression, or in the way that Kickstarter has transformed the funding of business and the arts.
Even as we speak, there are already those who have taken the first steps into a new model of scientific research, both in academia and in industry. They are characterized by a willingness to look outside the bounds of the current model in which most who participate are all too eager to tell us that this is the only game in town.
I firmly believe that it is not.
*Disclaimer: The author of this article is also an old, white guy, but of the kind with neither authority nor influence. You can therefore, quite safely tell him to go jump in a lake if you disagree with him, without fear of any damaging consequences for your career 🙂
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