About Research

It’s been a weird year. I’ve been closer to professional academic research than I have in ages, doing complex systems work at Princeton University on everything from social inequality to abiogenesis. For the most part, I had a great time. However, now that this experience is winding down, there are some important things I feel I should say:

1:Professional science is broken.

2: The world desperately needs amateur scientists, now more than ever.

3: The frontier of human knowledge is an incredibly short walk away, and anyone who cares should be visiting it.  

On the face of it, these remarks might seem somewhat negative and/or counterintuitive, so let me explain, one point at a time.

First: professional science is broken.

While doing work at Princeton I was supported by the most amazing people. All of them were smart. All of them were kind. They were incredibly welcoming to someone who’s been doing science at random in a non-academic context for the last twenty years. I have phenomenal respect for all of them. I cannot say enough positive things about the support I received. Princeton, too, was an surprisingly functional, rational, and inclusive institution. Without exception, every department I encountered was wisely and compassionately run, and managed at a superb level of professionalism. In short, they were awesome. So what’s broken, you may ask?

The system that academics inhabit is broken. Academic career tracks are broken. The funding situation is broken. The compromises that people have to make to stay in research are broken. The way that people have to publish research in order to be considered professional is broken. The workload for junior faculty is broken. The administrative load that senior faculty have to manage is broken. And it is for all these reasons and more that my wife and I are leaving.

I don’t have room here to go into all the subtle details of why I believe there’s a profound crisis taking place in science in the western world. There is plenty on the web that captures parts of this story, for instance, here, here and here. In subsequent posts I’ll try to drill down and explain what I learned. But the main takeaway for this post is as follows:

Much of professional science has reached a point where engaging in the process of risky intellectual exploration is untenable for people who want to retain their job and their credibility.

This is because this career track is now so tenuous, and so over-competitive, that it forces a strategy of extreme caution onto the very people who should be taking the biggest intellectual risks.

Being a scientist is a bit like being in the military. You join up and undergo a rigorous, often demoralizing training process. (Unlike in the military, this process can last anywhere from three to eight years.) At the end of that, you’re effectively posted somewhere. You up and leave your home, and start in your new position, which usually lasts three years (five if you’re incredibly lucky). Then, after that, you’re usually posted somewhere else, also for three years. Then, after that, you’re posted somewhere else again. This time, you get to stay for five years, but you often have to work 60 to 80 hour weeks busting a gut to establish yourself. Then, in many cases, you move again. By now, most people are about 16 years deep into this career track and counting.

God forbid that at any point during this process you become attached to a place, or furniture, or a hobby, or a family member, or a spouse. With each wrenching shift, these people/things either come with you, or you lose them for good. And along the way, if they come, they get a little bit smashed up. That’s because when you land in your new post, there’s room for you in the department, but usually no room for whoever or whatever came with you.

What really differentiates science from the army, though, is that in science, you’re supposed to own this process of transition. What I mean by this is that it’s supposed to be your idea. You’re supposed to feel lucky that you get such an awesome job. You’re supposed to be delighted at your good fortune. The military serviceperson gets to treat their constant relocation as a necessary evil that comes upon them through their duty. The scientist is just supposed to like it. Concerned about the stability of your income stream? You’re not supposed to care. It’s supposed to be beneath you. Want a decent daycare situation for your kids? That’s supposed to be a lower priority.

The number of people for whom this is actually true is vanishingly small. However, you wouldn’t guess it, because most of the people in this line of work have had to convince themselves that they’re one of that tiny minority. Often, they stick with this belief right up until they get sick, or unlucky, or depressed, or just simply forced out in the middle of their lives, and expected to abandon their dreams and retrain.

My wife and I were lucky. We left from a position of strength, with the door wide open for us to do more. But not everywhere in scienceland is as good as Princeton.

My point is that many many scientists are clinging desperately to the mast of their personal ship tossed in a battering career storm that they do not deserve. And these are the people we generally expect to take intellectual risks, to serve as guardians of truth, and to push forward the boundaries of human knowledge. And that’s bullshit.

Next, I’ll cover point two.

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