Non-conformism in academia

I’d like to start this conversation with a 4min video of interviews with my friends.

As I was mentioning in my post on diversity of perspectives, in the western academic system scientific findings and results are valued more if they lead to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research if they want to get funding. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable. It turns science into a race, a competition rather than a collaboration.

This situation might be perfect for competitive scientists, but I hear over and over again that many others are unhappy with it, because it adds lots of stress and destructs their focus. If publications, citations, and obtained funding are the metrics to evaluate scientific achievements, then we end up with the system that trains scientists to be good at publishing and securing funding rather than at doing research relevant for our planet and society.

New metrics have been proposed such as social media outreach or number of software downloads and the discussions go on and on (cf. 1, 2, 3, 4). These discussions are important, because the metrics are necessary for foundations distributing money and for employers hiring and promoting scientists.

However, changing metrics does not change the situation. If we, scientists, mostly care about looking good with respect to the metrics, then what we ultimately care about is our career and comfort. An alternative is as simple and natural as telling the truth — do not care about metrics. Any metrics. Let us leave it to those who are evaluating us: supervisors, foundations, communities.

If we stop thinking about metrics, we get a freedom to focus on important things. On why we are doing science in the first place. Publish only when the results are in good shape and ready to be shared and not because someone can scoop us or because funders are demanding publications. Do not care which journal we publish in. Be happy instead of jealous when learning that someone has already solved the problem we’ve been working on. Collaborate only with people we like and respect rather than aim at having a publication or a project proposal with a ‘big shot’. Write honest project proposals and spend obtained funding on achieving the project goals rather than juggle with hot topics and keywords to get money at any cost and spend it on something else. Share all our code and data instead of sitting on it.

Of course, this honesty comes at a price:

  • you might not end up at the most prestigious institution, which means less resources of any kind
  • you might have less world class colleagues to work with
  • you might have difficulties obtaining funding
  • you might never get a stable position or get it only quite late in your career

To sum up, less resources, opportunities, and stability. But in return we can do science, be true to our values and focus on things that matter. From what I’ve seen throughout my academic career, there are two options to make it happen.

The first option is to adapt to the existing environment. Refuse to play the game where everyone plays it. This is pretty much what I’ve been doing so far. Choosing a non-competitive and non-pushy supervisor who is happy with the idea of a flat hierarchy. Not conforming to any manipulations. Leaving the group when realizing that it goes in the direction I don’t want to take. Although this approach requires confidence and determination, I neither had much difficulties nor felt disadvantaged.

The second option is to find a perfect environment or to create it. This is what I would like to do now and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to join Homeward Bound. Through the program, I hope to connect to like-minded people and start meaningful projects together.

In the following months, I’ll be working on a series of interviews with non-conformist scientists to offer role models to those who’s sick of playing the game, but doesn’t see any alternatives. If you have time to chat with me about this topic, please drop me a line.


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