A salute to the also-rans.
They are the 80%, maybe the 90%. They contribute the bulk of the scientific literature, do most of the teaching, most of the administration, and train the majority of undergraduate students, PhDs, and postdocs. They do not benefit from the Matthew Effect, and they are more likely to lose their jobs. They are the underclass of a scientific caste system that exalts research over all other intellectual activities.
Let’s hear it for us, the also-rans. The people who don’t win prizes. Who don’t give keynote lectures. Who don’t have breakthrough papers. Who don’t get the big grants. Who have to fight hard for every grant they get. Who have to fight to get their papers published. The rank and file. The expendables. The cannon fodder. The collateral damage. The ones confronted on a near daily basis by the inequalities and unfairness in the system. The ones who keep going. The ones who keep the whole enterprise going.
Our names don’t appear in textbooks, and our research achievements get swiftly erased by the passage of time. We have no monument. We are the polyps in the reef. The workers in the hive. The cogs in the machine. At the individual level, we are destined to be forgotten, except by those whose lives we touched. But collectively, our contribution outweighs that of our more illustrious contemporaries by orders of magnitude. We are the ants on whose shoulders the entire edifice of science is raised up.
You can’t coerce people to make sacrifices like this, to gamble like this with their professional lives. You can only persuade them if they believe in the thing itself. Believe strongly enough and love it enough that they’ll take the risk. Take the risk to keep going when we’re told we’ve missed the boat. That we’ve no chance of tenure. That we’re unproductive. That we’ve been left behind. That we should quit.
Wo do it for love. We love the thing itself, and we love each other. We have the kind of camaraderie that’s more in keeping with warzones – not because we see people dying, but we see their careers dying. Sometimes quickly and cleanly, but more often slowly and agonisingly, with thrashing about and pleas and invocations and tears and regret and bitterness. We help those we can, we sympathise, and we grin and bear it. And we remember those who have gone.
We know the gallows humour. We know the score. We know that there are some battles you can fight, and some you have to walk away from. We already know the system is loaded against us, because we either fell from grace or we started off amongst the damned and the downtrodden and the discriminated. We are in the gutter, but we have our eyes fixed on the stars.
And more and more, we know that this isn’t right. We know that science has always been a precarious career, but never in the way it is now – not for this stretched-out stressed-out generation, buffeted by the bursting of the dotcom bubble, the 2008 financial crash, the pandemic, and facing ever greater competition for ever-dwindling resources. We’re getting tired of being used. We’re getting angry at the unfairness. And maybe, just maybe, we’re on the cusp of realising the strength that we have in numbers despite our individual vulnerability.