Too busy to think

07222020 too busy to think.png
“Too busy to think” by Aparna Baxi (@aparnabaxi)

Scientists need to allocate time for thinking as well as for doing, and especially so right now.

For scientists, and particularly scientist parents, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has caused time stress like little before it. Schools have been shut and plenty have not yet reopened, the abrupt conversion to online semesters has required a mammoth amount of teaching readjustment at short notice, and labs have been in lockdown while the career clock has kept ticking.

With the coronavirus still running rampant, no sign yet of a vaccine, and the prospect of a second wave beginning only a few weeks before the flu season starts, none of those factors are likely to be ameliorated soon.

Even with reopened schools, the merest sniffle from a child will mean several days home; even with some in-person teaching in the upcoming semester, all material will have to be available online for students who cannot or do not want to be on campus; and even with delayed assessments by funding and career bodies as a sympathetic gesture to lost research time, scientists cannot simply resume working at full output – meaning that the impact of lost productivity will be felt for a long time to come.

All those factors are contributing to an extreme level of time compression, and particularly – as always – for early career researchers, who do not have job security. That compression will be shaped by domestic stress, by the stress of online teaching, and by the stress of conducting labwork with appropriate safety measures…and all it would take to change everything again are a few positive tests. A “new normal” is still a long way off.

Time compression is of course a perennial problem for young scientists, so the pandemic is arguably exacerbating a psychological environment that already exists rather than creating a wholly new one. But the added strain caused by the pandemic should prompt us to confront an issue that bedevils science and will undoubtedly cause further career damage if it’s not addressed: that modern scientists seldom make enough time for thinking.

That issue is one that has been growing in tandem with hypercompetition in the research environment, with the glut in postdoctoral scientists that lessens their value as individuals, and with the online cacophony that characterises so much of modern life. Those increased demands and expectations – all causing or caused by career pressure – tend to consume hours that could be spent in contemplation. We’re too busy to think.

Contemplation requires time, and space. Writers understand this. There’s a lovely anecdote in Terry Pratchett’s “Strata” where an immense alien spaceship is discovered to have had almost no crew, and the reason is that the aliens needed space to think.

That kind of monastic reflection has been almost lost from experimental research, where a strong work ethic is invariably taken to mean a strong bench ethic – the focus is always on being at the coalface, at the machine, being demonstrably busy. The pendulum move that marked the backlash against idle thought experiments by armchair scientists has arguably swung too far the other way.

The problem is that all that benchwork often doesn’t leave enough time for thinking, processing, analysing, hypothesising – activities which often get delegated to, or arrogated by, group leaders. This is a doubly unsatisfactory outcome, as many group leaders have been away from the bench for too long to retain a strong sense of practicalities, and denying bench scientists the time to think about their data will stunt their intellectual development and slows their progression to independence (which can easily lead to postdocs becoming indentured labourers rather than group leaders in training).

Science is an intellectual activity as well as a practical one. Having a strong work ethic shouldn’t just encompass time spent in generating data, but should also cover time spent thinking it. Your work ethic should be defined not by how many hours of the day you spend at the bench, but how many hours your mind spends thinking about your project (worrying about it doesn’t count). You need intellectual engagement with your research, not just mechanical execution.

The problem – and it’s one that often discourages nervous students from doing it – is that thinking generally looks identical to simply staring into space. It’s important to recognise that sitting and apparently doing nothing can be very productive if the time is used well.

An outstanding example of the benefits of such contemplation is Quentin Crisp, the English raconteur and commentator who was the inspiration for the song “Englishman in New York”. Crisp spent most of his working life as a model for art classes, an activity celebrated in his first autobiography, “The Naked Civil Servant”. Crisp’s active avoidance of any kind of career in the traditional sense gave him the time to think, and you can tell from the staggeringly acute and often prescient nature of his insights that he had time to sort his thoughts out in his head.

“Quentin Crisp” by Ella Guru. Source: Wikipedia.

In the world of science, two researchers who are often held up as examples of contemplation are Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner. Crick and Brenner (the latter certainly no slouch at the bench) famously spent hours talking in their shared office, an activity that allegedly irritated Max Perutz, who typified the classic benchbound scientist. Perutz though was gracious enough to acknowledge after the discovery of the structure of DNA that Crick’s example showed there was more than one way of doing good science. Talking, thinking, is of value.

The sad thing is that this is not a hidden truth. The galvanising effect of conferences comes from their imposition of enforced contemplation of your and others’ research. The epiphanies that come from attending seminars or reading papers are due to theindirect communion with the people who did that work. We know this, but we always find ourselves not reading enough, not listening enough, not thinking enough.

Another guilty acknowledgement of the value of discourse and reflection is the way every new institute has architecture featuring breakout areas and reading areas and means of maximising encounter frequency, but what’s really needed is a work culture that values discussion and reflection, and encourages time to be allocated for it..

We should all follow Crisp’s example and set time aside for thinking. In this period of extreme time stress, it’s more important than ever that we actually stop, step back, and think about what we should do next. Whether it’s an experiment, a project, or a career arc, it will benefit from contemplation, and we can’t be too busy to think.


Acknowledgement: Thanks to @yarnofmoo for validating the Strata reference.

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