Front and centre

Image taken from “Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns and Moonage Daydreams” by Horten & Allred.

Why you might be able to make the biggest difference by doing something different.

For most of its practitioners, science is a vocation. It’s something people are drawn to – from a sense of curiosity, from a desire to learn, from a wish to help others. People certainly don’t go into science for the money. They believe in science with a capital “S”. They toil, they savour, they suffer, and they remain. They don’t leave. 

Sometimes not leaving is because the ways out of science are not well signposted. Sometimes it’s because people are afraid of leaving and believe, mistakenly, that their skills are of little use elsewhere. But most often people don’t leave because they don’t want to leave. The zeal with which science is pursued by its practitioners and the all-consuming enthusiasm for its rewards in all their forms makes the thought of doing something else a bit grey, a bit inconsequential.

All this is true. But it also conflates science, academia, and research. These are three separate but overlapping things, like sex, love, and marriage. And when people talk about how hard it is “leaving science” what they usually mean is “leaving academia”, and what they are actually thinking of is “leaving research”. 

We have all been indoctrinated into the cult of research. We all believe that we have a unique contribution to make to science, and that that unique contribution will be made – and can only be made – at the bench. 

The first part of that sentence is true, but not the second. 

Although we believe that we have a unique discovery in us and if we’re able to hang around long enough we’ll make it, in fact someone else, somewhere, will make that same discovery eventually. No discovery in scientific research is personally unique. And deep down, we all know it – it’s that knowledge that underpins the mad rush for establishing priority in scientific research, because we’re all acutely aware that it we don’t get our name attached to something, somebody else will.

It’s a paradox that we do everything to avoid confronting. We believe that we’re unique, but we also know – will the same dull witless fatalism of all prey animals – that we’re replaceable. So we cling to our research careers, hanging on to that notion of uniqueness in ourselves, and we recoil from the idea of leaving research because to do so is to finally relinquish the belief that in research terms, we matter. And we go on clinging, clinging desperately, because we assume that leaving research means the end of our scientific careers. We assume that research is all that science has to offer.

It’s an assumption that has far-reaching consequences. It drives the creation of research institutes, whose staff are engaged in research to the virtual exclusion of all else. It encourages the stratification of universities, by lending a perception of greater value to those who advance their research portfolios the farthest. And it skews the allocation of public money, in the belief that funds invested in research are all that’s required to drive up science productivity, science literacy, and science activity. A skew that instead leads to the concentration of funds in a privileged circle of institutions whose very receipt of these lavish budgets is increasingly used as evidence of their scientific excellence.

Yet there is research outside academia. There is research outside science (what do you think all those Humanities departments are doing?). And there is science outside of research.

The primacy of research over all other scientific activities blinds us to the obvious fact that science has a range of different outputs, of which research is only one – there is supervision of trainees at the bench, teaching students in both lectures and practical classes, communication to our scientific peers and the general public, writing texts, editing texts, reviewing papers and proposals, reading and remaining on top of the literature, managing a group, organising teams of groups, determining policy at every link in the chain of the scientific hierarchy…but many of these activities go uncredited in the dash to pin our names to author lists.

Because we believe that leaving research means leaving academia, and that leaving academia means leaving science.

We are unique, but our unique contributions  may not be in research. For many scientists, their unique contributions to science – the things that they can do better than their peers and which will have the greatest impact – will lie outside research. A great example is in Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Calling Dr. Thomas”, in which he saluted the scientific and medical contributions made by Lewis Thomas not as a researcher, or as a doctor, but as an administrator (and a writer). 

Like Bowie, every scientist will move through several incarnations in the course of their career, and it’s worth asking which incarnation lets us express their unique gifts most fully. It’s worth asking what of those many different scientific activities we do best, and how many of those activities we would still be able to do outside of research, and maybe outside of the academic career track. It may well be more than you think.

There’s a great interview (here) with the Ford Foundation director Jenny Toomey, a punk musician who’s spent most of the last 30 years working as an activist on behalf of independent artists. Toomey notes that musicians are not organised and they’re poor, so nobody investigates what they’re like and what their place in the cultural landscape is. She describes her move into activism, a move that comes at the cost of reducing her own musical output, and the realisation that her experience as an activist makes her more valuable as an advocate than as an artist. 

It’s an interview that scientists at every career stage would do well to heed. What is it they can do to put their particular skills, their unique contributions, front and centre? That is the way they can make the biggest contribution to science, provide the most service, and do the most good. As the interviewer Neda Ulaby puts it “You don’t always serve the art you love best by making it”

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Michele Garfinkel for drawing my attention to the Toomey interview, which inspired this posting.

Related postings:
Forks in the road – why leaving academia isn’t the same as leaving science, and what some of the other options are.
A life of service – how taking taxpayer money incurs a debt of societal repayment
It couldn’t ever happen to me – the importance of having a career Plan B
Stick to what you’re good at (a tribute to Lelio Orci) – the value of focusing on your individual strengths

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