Category Archives: Academia

Politics, Diversity, and the March for Science

On April 22, there is a March for Science in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world. The march is in response to recent acts by the US government (such as the silencing of government scientists, anti-science cabinet appointments, restrictions on international movement of scientists, and a general rejection of facts and expertise), as well as concern about future actions.

Although the response from the scientific community to the march has been largely positive, there is a significant minority out there complaining, or more often concern trolling, about “politicizing science.” So for those of you who feel that science should not be political, or who have to deal with people who say things like “don’t make science political,” here are a few thoughts.

Science is Already Political

Yes, ideally, the conclusions of scientific inquiry should not be influenced by political factors. You do the experiment or analysis, and the results are what they are. In some fields, that ideal may even be achievable in practice.

But everything surrounding science is inherently political, like what questions get asked, who gets to ask them, and who becomes famous for finding the answers. If we take a broad view of “political,” the activity of science is political at every level. Departmental politics affect access to resources, and disciplinary politics affects which science gets published in which journals.

We can give the “don’t make science political” folks (DMSPs) the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are referring specifically to the government. But here, too, science has long been political. In the post–World War II era, the predominant model of science has relied on government funding. Universities and science-advocacy groups spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying about science funding, as do religious and other interest groups. Ignoring politics altogether means handing over control of the funding and oversight of science to those who don’t ignore it, including many groups with explicit anti-science agendas.

Maybe You Meant Partisan?

I suspect that what some of the DMSPs mean is that we should be careful not to make the March for Science into a partisan issue, where we are all chanting, “Science good! Republicans bad!” This is perhaps a good argument for requiring that scientists receive a better general education.

It is true that, overall, federal funding of science in the United States has had pretty good bipartisan support. Yes, when some asshole congressman ignorantly mocks NSF-funded research projects, it is usually a Republican. On the other hand, the biggest increases in NIH funding in decades came under George W Bush. Republicans and Democrats have often prioritized different areas of science, but for most of the past seventy years, the inherent value of science has not been a particularly partisan issue.

from the Center for American Progress http://ampr.gs/2lD3kku

It seems reasonable to say that we should be careful not to alienate the party that controls the government. The problem is that that party is currently dominated by people with an unequivocally anti-science agenda. It is not necessarily that they are going to defund all science — in fact, some areas of research may even benefit in the short term. It is that there is now an overt agenda to silence and delegitimize science that does not conform to specific ideological pre-commitments.

I suspect that there are many Republicans in congress who privately support quality independent scientific research. But so far, very few Republicans have been willing to take stands against any of the extreme policies of their leadership or the new administration. That makes it feel like the fight for science is a partisan one, but not because scientists chose to make it that way. To misquote Ronald Reagan, science did not leave the Republican party, the Republican party left science. We must fight for science, and that fight will, in the short term, be partisan. Hopefully, if saner Republicans are able to regain control of their party, that won’t always be the case.

But Actually You Meant Diversity

In reality, what most of the DMSPs are actually mad about is not politics or partisanship, but diversity. The first significant backlash against the March for Science came after the march organizers posted their diversity policy. For example:

The diversity statement has gone through a couple of iterations over the past weeks, but here is the current version:

The March for Science strongly supports diversity, inclusion and equality in science.

American and global citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community. We advocate for equal access to science education and scientific careers. When evidence-based science and policy are ignored, marginalized communities are differentially and disproportionately impacted.

Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, come from and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates.

To characterize a statement like this as “anti-science” is just absolute monkey-bonkers. It’s the sort of thing you expect to see from a twitter egg or one of those frog people. It’s hard even to know where to start. For one thing, there is pretty good empirical evidence of the effect of various systemic -isms and -phobias on representation in science and elsewhere. You might even call that evidence “scientific.” You may recall from something you read about sixty seconds ago that questions of who gets to do what science — and who gets to become famous for it — are always steeped in politics. People who believe that science is somehow a pure meritocracy, where the best, purest scientists rise to the top of a colorblind (genderblind, etc.) hierarchy are 1) typically people whose careers were advanced, rather than impeded, by systematic biases, and, 2) wrong.

But What About Just Focusing on Science?

Other critics — those who are not the favorite cognitive scientist of libertarian man-babies and closeted white supremacist pseudo-intellectuals — have tended to criticize this pro-inclusion, pro-diversity stance as a “distraction,” or as something that risks alienating some of our would-be allies. These critics say that the march should just focus on science.

The focus-on-science criticism is actually saying, “I don’t care that you have these other concerns. You should be focusing on my concern.” I’ve seen variations on this argument in a lot of places. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it coming from someone volunteering to help organize anything.

Most of the organizers of the March for Science appear to be members of underrepresented groups, because that’s who stepped up. As soon as the march became a big deal, in comes a brigade of, let’s say, non-underrepresented scientists. These guys (yes) criticize the march for addressing issues that are not of direct relevance to them. There tends to be a lot of entitlement, as if, obviously, the organizers will defer to their authority and reorganize the march to their liking. Actually, the whole pattern makes a nifty case study in one of the reasons why pro-active diversity efforts are necessary.

Defending diversity in science is not a distraction from the defense of science. Science is an activity done by human beings who exist in the world. You may not view civil rights and civil liberties as being relevant to science, but they are certainly relevant to scientists, without whom there is no science. Protecting current and future scientists from persecution, exclusion, and discrimination is just as important to science as protecting science communication from censorship.

And if your top concern is that explicitly valuing diversity will alienate potential allies, then you need to aspire to a better class of ally. Discounting diversity concerns as irrelevant is selfish and ignorant, but suppressing those concerns to curry favor with bigots is a whole other level of shitty. If our only hope of saving American science relies on the largesse of racists and xenophobes, we are in even more trouble than we thought.

What’s a DMSP To Do?

So what should your your DMSP friend do? The friend who wants to support science, but who is turned off by talk of diversity. Or what should you do, if you’re the unlikely DMSP who has not already rage-closed this post?

Here’s the good news: the March for Science, like pretty much all political actions not organized by totalitarians, will be heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and a little bit chaotic. Odds are, you won’t really be able to hear the speakers, and their diversity won’t affect you one way or another. The “message” of the march will be only loosely controlled by the organizers.

More than anything, the message of the march will be the sum of the messages of the individual marchers. So, if diversity isn’t your issue, don’t make your sign about diversity. (But if you’re an advocate of evidence-based decision making, you should talk — and listen — to some scientists from underrepresented groups and think about whether maybe it should be one of your issues.)

And if you are, for whatever reason, unable to empathize with the concerns of scientists who don’t look, or act, just like you, maybe think of this: the people who round up minorities for incarceration, deportation, or extermination are generally the same people who round up scientists and other intellectuals for reeducation. The story of fascism does not end with, “but then the white men were given adequate funding and intellectual independence to pursue their research without interference from their otherwise-Orwellian rulers.”

Or maybe you’re just clinging to the hope that you won’t need to get involved in any of this political stuff. The impulse to avoid taking sides is strongly ingrained in many scientists. But not taking sides may soon not be an option. We are moving into the Geddy Lee zone, where if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Choose wisely.

Interdisciplinarity and Productivity

In a blog post at the London School of Economics, University of Arizona Sociology Professor Erin Leahey describes some of her recent work on the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary research for productivity and impact metrics in science. The basic pattern is that interdisciplinary work tends to receive more citations (a common metric used to judge “impact”), but tends to lead to fewer publications (a common metric used to judge “productivity”).

She goes on to describe her efforts with her coauthors to discover the source of this productivity penalty. They found no evidence that interdisciplinary work has a harder time in the review and publication process than traditional disciplinary work. Rather, the cost seems to be in the additional effort required to actually do the interdisciplinary work.

IDR could also stifle productivity because the process of producing interdisciplinary scholarship—learning new concepts, literatures, and techniques, working with a diverse group of collaborators—is challenging. We find that IDR projects do indeed face these hurdles. Scholars who engage in ‘repeat collaborations’ with the same set (or subset) of authors experience a smaller productivity penalty than we see overall, so scholars do become accustomed to working with their coauthors (regardless of field). Survey responses from a small sub-sample of these scholars reveal that interdisciplinary teams have more difficulty generating ideas, and their communication is less clear, more difficult, and lower quality. Last, because our theory suggests that it is challenging to incorporate different ideas into a single paper, multidisciplinary scholars (who publish separate papers on distinct topics) likely do not face production penalties. Indeed, our results show that scholars conducting multidisciplinary research are more productive, not less.

This resonates with my own experience. When working on a project in your own field, it is easy to underestimate just how much you rely on deep experience. Engaging in a meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration requires a lot of remedial education.

Of course, this is not to say that you should shy away from interdisciplinary work. I’d say it is one more reason why hiring and promotion committees should be wary of publication counting.

The study can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839216665364

Narcissism in Science

For some reason, I guess narcissism was on people’s minds last Friday. Hannah Devlin had a story in the Guardian about a lecture given by immunologist Bruno Lemaitre about the crisis of narcissism in science.

“Many great scientists are narcissists. It’s a bit sad, but it’s a fact,” he said. “This might surprise an external observer, because scientists are usually perceived as being modest searchers for the truth and working collectively for the advancement of science.”

Lemaitre is not suggesting his profession is unique in having experienced a rise in individualism – politics, film or fashion are probably worse and the trend is global, he says, but it has some worrying implications that are specific to science.

“The influence of narcissism on so many aspects of science calls into question [its] very objectivity,” he said.

The replication crisis in psychology and the life sciences, in which “sexy” papers fail to stand up to closer scrutiny, can be blamed in part on scientists being motivated by a need for attention and authority as well as curiosity about the natural world, he said.

This sounds right to me.

Graeber on the Transformation of Universities

Following up on the previous posts on bullshit and tenure, Research Scholar Ralph Haygood drew my attention to this passage from a 2014 article by David Graeber in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

Universities are—or, better said, until recently have been— among the only institutions that survived more or less intact from the High Middle Ages. As a result, universities still reflected an essentially medieval conception of self-organization and self-governance; this was an institution managed by scholars for the pursuit of scholarship, of forms of knowledge that were seen as valuable in their own right. This did not fundamentally change at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when university systems entered into an often somewhat uneasy alliance with centralizing states, providing training for the civil service in exchange for keeping the basic principle of autonomy intact. Obviously this autonomy was compromised in endless ways in practice. But it existed as an ideal. And it was important. It made a difference both in legitimizing the basic idea of a domain of autonomous production driven by values other than those of the market, but in any number of very practical ways as well: for instance, universities were, traditionally, spaces in cities not directly under the jurisdiction of the police.

In this sense what’s happened to universities since the 1970s—very unevenly, but pretty much everywhere—has represented a fundamental break of a kind we have not seen in eight hundred years. As Gayatri Spivak remarked in a talk she gave to Occupy Wall Street, even twenty years ago, when people spoke of “the university,” in the abstract, they were referring to the faculty; nowadays, when they speak of “the university,” they are referring to the administration. Universities are no longer corporations in the medieval sense; they are corporations in the capitalist sense, bureaucratic institutions organized around the pursuit of profit, even though the “profit” in question is, nowadays, slightly more broadly conceived. They are most certainly not institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as a value in itself. In that sense, I really think it can be said that the university, in the original conception of the term, is dead.

The whole article is fantastic, open access, and available here: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau4.3.007

Paul Graham on Risk and Discovery

In a short post Paul Graham (computer scientist, venture capitalist, and opinion haver) notes that biographies of famous scientists tend to focus on the subset of their ideas that panned out, neglecting their failures.

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed.

[snip]

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics

[snip]

Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky.

You can take this argument even further. There have been a ton of people throughout history working on topics that, at the time, seemed as promising as physics or alchemy. People don’t tend to write biographies about the folks for whom the big breakthrough never comes.

The written history of science tends to be a post-hoc narrative of linear progress imposed on a roiling, chaotic mess of false starts and wrong turns. (As does the history of not-science, for that matter.) The problem is that it leads us to think that we can have progress without risk, success without failure. It leads to our risk-averse approach to funding scientific research, which has proven itself effective at producing huge volumes incremental science.

The fact is, if we want to fund the research that will lead to the next Principia, we’re going to have to become okay with funding a lot more alchemy.

Missouri Looking at Eliminating Tenure

Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin has introduced a bill that would eliminate tenure at public universities in the state. The text of the bill can be found here. This follows on the heels of a similar bill that has been introduced in Iowa.

The Missouri bill would also require universities to provide information about the costs of different degrees and the job prospects for people with those degrees. That bit actually sounds okay to me. Job opportunities and future earnings are not the only things you should consider when making decisions about your education, and I firmly believe that a good education, particularly in some of the less lucrative fields, can enrich your life in ways that don’t translate financially. However, allowing students to make an informed choice seems good, particularly for those students who may not have the family financial resources to fund an education that won’t lead to a decent career.

But what about the tenure bit? That seems, on its face, to be setting the stage for future attacks on academic freedom. Tenure is what allows people to pursue ideas with some degree of insulation from political and financial pressures. The Chronicle for Higher Ed has an interview with the author of the bill, and they ask him point blank:

Q. Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job.

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

That sure sounds like a long way of saying, “Yes, professors could be fired for political reasons.”

If you’re thinking of taking a job in Missouri, you’ve got a brief window. The Chronicle states that the bill would not apply to anyone receiving tenure before January 1, 2018. The text of the bill actually says that it would not apply to anyone hired before January 1, 2018. So, if you started a position there this fall, you’d maybe be okay?

Or maybe it won’t pass! If you live in Missouri, call your state representatives (when you take a break from calling your federal representatives).

Required Coursework: Calling Bullshit

Here’s something that should probably be worked into every college curriculum in the country: a course developed by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West of the University of Washington — Calling Bullshit. Note, this is not an official course at the moment, although they plan to submit it to the University for approval. But right now, you can check out the rationale and the syllabus.

Here’s part of the intro from their new website:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

Attention everyone developing college curriculum around the country: more of this please.

Nature’s Cultural Blindspot

A recent editorial in NatureYoung scientists thrive in life after academia” on the future of careers for today’s scientists is on one hand, both optimistic, but on the other, deeply unsatisfying. The editorial is clearly well-intentioned, providing what it sees as a hope for a generation of new scientists facing the worse funding climate and academic job market in decades. I agree with the editors that it is encouraging that people with PhDs and long periods of training are finding gainful employment.

However the editorial has what might be called a cultural blindspot: the default assumption that doing research science is largely an activity that one undertakes only within a specific set of jobs performed in certain institutions and once you’re out of those institutions, there’s both no way to continue, nor any way back.  Of those who moved out of academic positions it says:

Many had managed to stay in touch with science, and worked in a related function such as administration, outreach or publishing.

This strikes me as a disempowering message: the best one can hope for is “to stay in touch with science”[1]. Is this really the most we can do for those who have spent many years acquiring skill and knowledge of a subject? Is doing science really like a step function: all or nothing? To be fair, the editorial doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s all in the subtext.

Step function

After reading its description of the real struggles of today’s scientists:

The hours, the workload, the instability of postdoc positions, the expectations, the low pay, the pressure and competition, the lack of opportunities and the fear of failure: all can combine to make the early-career years difficult indeed.

One might be tempted to ask, why are academic institutions of science like that? Do they need to be? Maybe we should change them? And perhaps the institutions should adapt to the people working in them, rather than the other way around?  A recent article on the the news side of Nature “the scientific 1%” makes it clear just how much concentration of wealth and prestige in a small number of institutions and groups leads to this intense competition and pressure. Maybe that’s a good place to start reform?

These are questions that the Nature editorial does not seem prepared to tackle. Instead the focus is on more “honest career advice”, as if the institutions themselves are fixed and unreformable. Nature also subtly reinforces its own place in this hierarchy:

More than three-quarters of them had published as a principal author and one-fifth had published a paper in a high-impact journal such as Nature.

Essentially, if these scientists published in Nature, they must be good! This elides Nature’s role in buoying an incentive system based upon an artificial scarcity of “slots” in highly prestigious journals. A system that that indirectly perpetuates the academic rat-race and the concentration of resources that has made aspects of research in academic environments so unpleasant in the first place.

Towards the end of the editorial, we start getting a little closer to a more expansive view of the situation in the discussion of different paths:

Science should wish them well. As Nature has pointed out before, a regular flow of bright, highly trained and scientifically literate workers heading into the wider world can only benefit society and science. It is time to normalize these sideways steps, and for universities, senior scientists and research funders to accept and embrace the different paths that young researchers choose to follow.

This is a more open-minded view, but it still begs the question: why wait for these gatekeepers to approve or “normalize” these paths?  Scientists can collectively empower themselves. Because traditional academia is highly hierarchical this notion is in Nature’s cultural blindspot [2].

Ultimately we need a broader cultural shift that decouples the activity of science from specific institutions. Academic institutions may “wish them well”, but “science” cannot, because there is nobody who can speak for science as a whole, not Nature, not career advisors, not academic institutions, not even the Nobel Prize Committee. This is because nobody owns science. We don’t expect artists’ to drop doing art if they don’t land a position at an art museum or residency at a gallery, they keep doing their art. Yet this is the commonplace expectation in science. An editorial which explores ways of both reforming the existing system to be more humane, and examines ways to empower all scientists to continue to do science, who may never be, nor ever want to be, university-based professors, that values contributions regardless of affiliation or job title, now that’s an editorial I’d like to read.


[1] Many will point out that, of course, people outside traditional academic positions still publish papers, and do scientific work. Those working in biotech or pharma companies, might continue publish middle-author papers with a dozen co-authors. Or a scientist working at a conservation nonprofit might help contribute to a paper the data analysis of an ecological project in a collaboration with an academic. That’s not what I mean: I mean curiosity-driven research that is independently-initiated while not employed at an academic institution. Nobody will stop you doing research absent a standard institutional affiliation, but everything about the current funding and publication system will either passively or actively work against those who choose to work “outside” (See Richard Lewontin’s “Legitimation is the Name of the Game“).

[2] I don’t mean to minimize the financial aspects and need for jobs and income: between the postdoc crisis, the over-reliance of adjuncts and the increasing neoliberal corporatization of universities in general, all of which we have discussed here on the Ronin blog, most scientists’ immediate concerns is continuing to pay the bills while doing their work. But in a world in which steady, predictable career paths may disappear in general, we can’t only think of institutions and job titles, as even the notions of early, mid and late career are likely to change radically in the coming years. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily all good. I wouldn’t want all institutions or universities to just melt away for example, but a world in which only a few get stability and all the goodies and the rest do not isn’t so great either. There is an extreme libertarian, and undesirable, version of this future in which there is a Hunger Games-style race to the bottom, with an even more wealth inequality. But there is potential progressive version of this future, sketched out most compelling by economist Guy Standing in which basic economic security would be provided via, amongst other things, something like a universal basic income. This is a subject I discussed briefly in a previous blog post.

Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities

There’s a short piece in the Times Higher Ed by Henry Heller in which he outlines the transformation over the course of the second half of the twentieth century of American universities from publicly supported institutions working for the good of society as a whole to standard neoliberal corporations.

The upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s may be seen in retrospect as an extension of the success of the 1950s, as university enrolments and funding continued to expand, and as the social and political role of universities assumed new importance. Universities became important sites of conflict over foreign policy, racism, gender equality and democracy, both within and beyond the campus. A new ideological cosmopolitanism emerged on campus as a result of the emergence of the first serious Marxist scholarship in the US, especially through the renewal of a historical perspective in anthropology, sociology, literature and history proper. Feminists opened up new opportunities for women in academe and began to create new theory around the question of gender. Most importantly, the very purpose of academic knowledge and research was questioned, especially in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

 

But from the 1980s onwards, so-called academic capitalism took hold, and universities increasingly redefined their mission to be serving private business and they themselves became, as far as possible, profit-oriented in operation and objectives. And thus was born the so-called neoliberal university, marked by the decline of the humanities and social sciences, cuts in public financing, enfeeblement of faculty and student roles in governance, increases in tuition fees, reductions in tenured faculty and increasing use of adjunct professors. Capping off these changes are the growth of for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and the growth of mainly business-backed massive open online courses, which augur a decline in the need for permanent faculty and investments in fixed capital.

The article coincides with the publication of his new book, The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016, which looks like a must read for anyone who cares about the history, and the future, of academia.

Access Denied: Access to Scientific Literature

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Emily Monosson has written a new post (cross-posted as AAAS’s Sci-on-the-Fly) where she discusses the challenges of accessing paywalled literature when you’re working outside the traditional academic system. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, as we enter the Golden Age of information and technology – somewhere, somehow, this scientific information increasingly became locked away behind paywalls. Creating a system of scientific Haves and Have-nots, as university libraries become gateways open to those with the right netIDs. As increasing numbers of us wander from the academy, whether working for non-profits, as high-school teachers, writers or god-damn independents – we risk losing access to this trove of essential data. And the larger scientific community, I think, risks losing us along with all the time, and money and knowledge it took to train us.

Check it out!