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!

Open Science and its Discontents

Open science has well and truly arrived. Preprints. Research Parasites. Scientific Reproducibility. Citizen science. Mozilla, the producer of the Firefox browser, has started an Open Science initiative. Open science really hit the mainstream in 2016. So what is open science? Depending on who you ask, it simply means more timely and regular releases of data sets, and publication in open-access journals. Others imagine a more radical transformation of science and scholarship and are advocating “open-notebook” science with a continuous public record of scientific work and concomitant release of open data. In this more expansive vision: science will be ultimately transformed from a series of static snapshots represented by papers and grants into a more supple and real-time practice where the production of science involves both professionals and citizen scientists blending, and co-creating a publicly available shared knowledge. Michael Nielsen, author of the 2012 book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science describes open science, less as a set of specific practices, but ultimately as a process to amplify collective intelligence to solve scientific problems more easily:

To amplify collective intelligence, we should scale up collaborations, increasing the cognitive diversity and range of available expertise as much as possible. This broadens the range of problems that can be easy solved … Ideally, the collaboration will achieve designed serendipity, so that a problem that seems hard to the person posing it finds its way to a person with just the right microexpertise to easily solve it.

Attempts to reform the way we do science have been underway for decades, from arXiv in 1990s, to open access publishing in the early 2000s. The degree to which any scientific field practices open science varies considerably, but it’s pretty fair to say that the institutional embracement of open science hasn’t exactly been speedy despite demonstrated successes in the physical sciences and mathematics such as the Polymath project and Galaxy Zoo. In physics it is had been mainstream for a while now to release manuscripts first on arXiv and big data sets through standardized repositories. In the biomedical sciences, progress has been considerably slower, perhaps due its larger institutional and financial footprint: it’s the proverbial large supertanker than needs a long time to turn around, let alone move in different direction. Whatever the reason, open science is now firmly on the radar, and it has unleashed a torrent of opinion and criticism, examining all aspects from its practicality to its desirability.

Although there is a spectrum of responses, criticism of open-science tends to fall into one of two camps, that I will call “conservative” and “radical”. This terminology is not intended to imply an association with any conventional political labels, they are simply used for convenience to indicate the relative degree of comfort with the institutional status quo. Let’s look at these two groups of critiques.

The conservative critique: what are all these damn people doing with my data?

The conservative response to regular timely release of pre-publication data could be best summarized by the phrase: “are you kidding me? why would I do that?” The apotheosis of this notion was appeared in an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicinewhich described with some horror the “emergence of a new class of research parasites”. They further concluded that some of these parasites might not only use that data for their own publications, but might seek to examine whether the original study was correct. Many scientists took to Twitter to express their amazement that anybody would object to a re-examination of the data, since falsification is presumed to be the backbone of the scientific enterprise and use of the hashtag #IAmAResearchParasite was trending for several days.

From the perspective of the current incentive system, however, this response is totally rational. In a model where labs or principal investigators are largely funded on “high-impact” papers and grants, there is intense pressure to keep the lid buttoned on data as long as possible, even if a collaborative process could, in principle, produce a better result. (In software world this is often summarized by the phrase attributed to Erik Raymond: “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”). It’s also a collective action problem: if all scientists were to release their data, then it would easier for individuals to buy into a more frequent release of data.

The second area where open-science approaches run into another entrenched form of institutional power is the battle over preprints. Preprints are well established in physics, and about 80% of pre-prints end up in “traditional journals”. In biology, however, allowing preprints to then be accepted by traditional publishers has been fiercely resisted especially by “high-impact factor” journals published by publishing conglomerates like Elsevier, ever since e-Biomed was proposed as a biology-version of arXiv back in 1999. It’s my sense that these publishers are reading the tea-leaves and realizing, probably quite rightly, that eventually scientists will just cut out of the middleman (the journal). Mike Eisen, one of the pioneers of e-Biomed and PLOS has in fact explicitly proposed that we should eventually just do away with journals and move to a complete preprint + post-publication peer review system. Obviously a nightmare scenario if you’re the head of multibillion dollar highly profitable publishing conglomerate that benefits from the free labor of scientists (peer review has been estimated to be worth ~1.9 billion British pounds per year).

One of the usual counterarguments to post-publication peer review is that it will produce a flood of lower quality papers. The refrain is: how will I know what to read, now anybody can publish? This can indeed be an issue but it need not be insurmountable. Nielsen and others have proposed a publish-then-filter model. New experiments like Science Matters, which publish single observations and The Winnower which archives grey literature and blogs can also provide these purposes. One thing seems clear, especially after the Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio) meeting this Spring that the tide, in biomedical science at least, seems to be turning towards the acceptance of preprints, notably via the biology-specific preprint server bioRxiv. Over time this may lead to an increased willingness to explore different publishing models.

Of course, all these changes are really just baby steps in a truly fully-fledged open science, because they still enshrine a “scientific paper” as the sole end goal. Other aspects of the open science movement, including building tools for reproducibility, “rewarding” non-paper research products such as code, infrastructure and raw data itself promise to be equally important, but despite the progress made in the last 6 years, are activities that are still largely unrewarded by the current academic system. It will probably take a true generational turnover before we see a full-throated embrace of open science, and many of those driving the changes have concluded that it is best done outside traditional academic institutions. In fact, thinking about open-science solely in terms of economic incentive structures, may be a wrong, or at least incomplete, way to think about open-science, which leads me to…

The “radical” critique: be careful what you wish for.

Arguments for open-science made in response to the conservative critique tend to assume that release of more data, code, papers is a pure good in and of itself, and downplay the political economy in which they are embedded. Indeed, as I just argued above above: a fertile intellectual commons that all scholars, professional and otherwise can use to pursue their own intellectual adventures is a worthy goal and, in an ideal world, should lead to a truly more democratic science. However an interesting paper by sociologist David Tyfield: “Transition to Science 2.0: “Remoralizing” the Economy of Science” says essentially: not so fast.

Tyfield suggests that the release of vast troves of data, papers or research results although potentially beneficial to science as an enterprise, could simply exacerbate the trends towards the increasing marketization and corporatization of science and will disproportionately benefit large corporations. There are several trends that worry Tyfield and other scholars such as Philip Mirowski, Gary Hall and Eric Kansa, including:

  1. the capturing of publically-funded research value by commercial platforms

  2. open-science will simply consolidate a different set of gatekeepers and introduce yet more “metrics” of productivity used to “incentivize” scholars to work harder

  3. and a focus on system-wide progress of science ignores costs and benefits to individual humans, scientists or non-scientists

Let’s take them in order.

1. Capturing of academic labor output by commercial interests has probably become familiar as a destination for scholars of all stripes to share their work via archiving their PDFs. Recently they sent an email to select participants to join their editor program, and be an unpaid editor for the site to recommend publications appearing on the site to others that area of research expertise. This move was roundly criticized and led to another Twitter hashtag: #DeleteAcademiaEdu. Gary Hall wrote a paper ““Should This Be the Last Thing You Read on” (available on!) comparing’s business model to Uber, noting that

…the majority of academics who are part of’s social network are the product of the state-regulated, public higher education system, as is their research (a system, it should be said, from which public funding is steadily being withdrawn). But just as Airbnb and Uber are parasitic on the public ‘infrastructure and the investment’ that was ‘made by cities a generation ago’ (roads, buildings, street lighting, etc.), so has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.

My own sense is that those running and ResearchGate are in it for idealistic reasons, and don’t see themselves as the next rapacious Uber-like company, but Hall’s point is that the business model that they operate under may force them to become increasingly extractive.

2. The tyranny of metrics

The second aspect is more subtle, as already scholars are ranked in terms of their “productivity” as measured through papers and grants. The counter-argument to the conservative reaction against against open-science is that it brings more research outputs into that system, thus “incentivizing” the publication or release of intermediate results, useful research by-products, code and the like. As I noted above these pieces can represent an intellectual commons where teams of scholars or individuals can build upon their release, thus incentivizing the generation of “public goods”. On this issue, Eric Kansa, a digital humanities scholar and practitioner of open data in an article “It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why instrumentalist arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not enough“ exposes the limitations of relying on open-science metrics alone:

Metrics, even better Alt-metrics, won’t make researchers or research more creative and innovative. The crux of the problem centers A Hunger Games-style “winner take all” dynamic that pervades commerce and in the Academy. A rapidly shrinking minority has any hope of gaining job security or the time and resources needed for autonomous research. In an employment environment where one slip means complete ejection from the academy, risk-taking becomes quasi-suicidal. With employment increasingly precarious, professional pressures balloon in ways that make risk taking and going outside of established norms unthinkable. Adding more or better metrics without addressing the underlying job security issues just adds to the ways people will be ejected from the research community.

Metrics, while valuable, need to carry fewer professional consequences. In other words, researchers need freedom to experiment and fail and not make every last article, grant proposal, or tweet “count.”

Kansa says that metrics, while useful up to a point, can be counterproductive because they simply add more steps in the treadmill in which scientists already operate. In other words, even though science as a whole may benefit, individual actual humans scientists may not. After all, if your job depends on producing evermore research “products” every year (whether open or not) then adding yet another set of outputs to please a search or tenure committee doesn’t seem like much fun. Because unless the fundamental model for hiring and funding changes and university administrations stop treating science as a business that must “grow”, new open-science “outputs” won’t substitute for papers and grants, they’ll just be added to them.

3. Who benefits?

Tyfield goes further in his analysis and suggests that the locus of progress is at the wrong level, and that open-science prioritizes “scientific progress” in the abstract, above improving the lot of the individual humans that comprise it:

Yet, as we have seen above, one needs only to ask the more humdrum question of “where are the jobs?” to see that the focus in such accounts is firmly at the system level of the global “data web” and the accelerated “progress” of “science” while totally neglecting that of the human individual and his/her place in such a society. It thus fails (and is likely to be seen to do so relatively quickly) precisely the test of moral economy that has triggered the breakdown of the passing order and the pursuit of transition to another: it massively rewards the undeserving and impoverishes the many and fails to deliver the “goods” of more, better and more-democratically-engaged knowledge that tackles the urgent and “wicked” problems of the multiple environmental, health and resource-based crises.

Further, he argues that open-science could:

undermine the compensation of human knowledge labour—albeit under the seemingly democratizing banner of “free information”—upon which such a system is entirely dependent. Furthermore, this analysis not only thereby destroys the “livelihoods” of a genuinely “creative” “knowledge-based economy” but also sponsors the construction of a system characterized by even more concentrated corporate control of knowledge (eg. information, data) than that of the IP-intensive corporate model of neoliberalism it ostensibly subverts.

Mirowski is even more blunt in his assessment of open-science:

It would be misguided to infer that Science 2.0 is being driven by some technological imperative to ‘improve’ science in any coherent sense. Rather, the objective of each and every internet innovation in this area is rather to further impose neoliberal market-like organization upon the previously private idiosyncratic practices of the individual scientist….Open Science 2.0 does not exist to democratize or otherwise improve research. Rather, it is engineered to position a few large firms at the electronic portals of the modern commercialization of knowledge.

This seems to me an excessively pessimistic view of open-science. Many of the most exciting initiatives in open science have been grass-roots driven efforts, especially the push towards preprints in biology. It’s hard to see how the rise of preprints is more market-like than already exists in the rush towards submission in prestige journals.  I have personally supported open science for many years for it’s potential to improve reproducibility, and to produce open-source scientific software that is beneficial to all. (Releasing scientific software under open source licenses is now a stated goal of the scientific establishment: in days past I would have needed to spend a good deal of effort convincing otherwise skeptical senior colleagues and universities of the value of open-sourcing my own efforts. Now this is less necessary, which counts as some kind of progress).

Nevertheless, Tyfield and Mirowski are right to point out the dangers of a pollyannaish view of the digitization of scientific practices. After all, a democratic, decentralized and open-source ethos was part of the founding principles of many of the now-dominant market players in the digital economy such as Google back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And as these companies have grown to become even more powerful, many of their vaunted principles have given way to a more winner-take-all approach.

It is therefore not unreasonable to be concerned that similar dynamics could occur in the open science world. No doubt they will. But, that is different to saying that all open-science practices are being explicitly engineered towards the undesirable neoliberal outcome described by these authors. The challenge is partially biological in nature: how to create a system where co-operative behaviour lead in which the benefits of open science practices are spread across many individuals and one that resists the encroachment of cheaters.

Reframing the question

Many arguments made in support or in opposition to open-science are ultimately unsatisfying because they both frame “success” as individual scientists adapting to existing and fixed institutional structures and norms. We should, instead, turn this question around and ask how do we use open science approaches in the context of retooling our institutions to benefit actual living and breathing humans (scientists and nonscientists)? How can we use open science to enable as many people who have the interest and talent to pursue science for it’s own sake and to generate knowledge that is broadly useful for society, and not just elite institutions, venture capital firms or global megacorporations? This reframing takes the conversation out of the instrumentalist language of “carrot-and-sticks”, “rewards” and “incentives”, since as previously discussed here on the Ronin blog, any such system can be used to service questionable ends. We should, as Ernesto Priego says, be “working towards a type of scholarship which is about learning from each other, not about surveillance and gatekeeping”. It also means prioritizing open science approaches that benefit not only institutions or science in the abstract but help improve the lot of individual working scientists.

So what would this look like? If traditional measures of research “quality” (see “Excellence R Us: University Research and the Fetishisation of Excellence”) and progress of science in the abstract is not sufficient, how will we know if open science is helping to drive an inclusive and humane approach to science? A partial list of what this might look like would include: “permission-less” innovation (the end of paywalls, end-user license agreements, data embargoes would be extended to all, not just institutionally-based researchers); a more equitable distribution of power and resources (a shift away from massive labs and distribution of funding geared towards living wages for the many, rather than stability and large rewards for an elite few); a rise in independent scholarship (these might be considered the “research parasites” of the NEJM, but it would not be a one-way street, independent scholars would contribute back to the commons, perhaps by releasing data under GPL copyleft-style licenses); and an open notebook science that is structured to enable learning and not surveillance. There is a obviously a lot of overlap with more traditional arguments for open-science with which I fully agree, but the structural nature of the actual working conditions for scientists and the political economy in which they are embedded need to be kept firmly in focus.

How to get there?

So how can we begin to build a human-centered open-science? Here’s a few places to start:

1) Strengthening existing public institutions such as libraries to support open science. Shrinking library budgets have reduced the ability for libraries to perform many of their core functions, let alone the new ones that scholars need. This is an area where there is an increased role for the state (via funding and support) provide the core infrastructure for open science that is not subject to the vagaries of the market.

2) Explore platform cooperativism and commons-based models for open-scienceThe decentralized architecture of the Internet and the libertarian promises of the so-called “sharing economy” have not magically created a nirvana where people get paid or credited fairly for value created. (Scholars from the social sciences, have generally been way ahead of scientists and technologists in recognizing these trends). Ownership and governance models matter much more than the technical architecture. As we develop open science platforms we should follow and draw inspiration from the platform cooperativism movement in which users have at least partial ownership or control of the platform, rather than simply being passive nodes in an “on-demand” economy as in Uber or AirBnB.

3) Push for larger-scale social and economic changes In the long-run perhaps only larger socioeconomic changes will be sufficient to underwrite the ideal of an inclusive open-science. One such change gaining steam is the push towards a universal basic income (UBI): paying all citizens a fixed basic income regardless of circumstances. Sociologists such as Guy Standing have argued that the rise of automation and the precarity of work (already a reality with the postdoctoral scholar glut) will eventually make something like a UBI a necessity (the exact form it takes, however, is critical). In science, a UBI could enable the true benefits of open science approaches by decoupling job security from arbitrary notions of research “productivity”. By extending the privilege of pursuing whatever truly interested them currently only enjoyed (in principle) by tenured faculty, to scientists that currently lack such job protections, would take a huge amount of pressure off young investigators that currently feel a need to squeeze as much work out of every dataset, graduate student or postdoc. Of course many kinds of science require more resources than a single faculty member’s paycheck, but many labs are likely bigger than they “need” to be and a UBI could have the effect of reducing the pressures (real or imagined) to “grow” one’s lab (see the “Problem with Building a Group” in Kitsune #2).

The naysayers out there (whether from the “conservative” or “radical” camp)  are likely to scoff at many, if not all, of these proposed changes and dismiss them as non-starters, or quibble with the exact details. The current funding climate certainly doesn’t favour changes, but that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. We can start now.

Marc Edwards (Flint Water Dude) and the Lie of Tenure

Marc Edwards, civil-engineering professor at Virginia Tech and driving force behind the research that revealed the high lead levels in the water system in Flint, Michigan, gave a great interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has a number of fantastic, and terrifying, things to say about the culture of academic science.

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

But, of course, it’s not just young faculty (although it is definitely worse for them). This is directly related to the lie that we always repeat about tenure. The premise of tenure, of course, is that once you’ve proven yourself, you get job security, which provides intellectual freedom. Once you have tenure, you’re supposed to be able to pursue your research, even if it is controversial or unpopular. And in certain fields that may be more or less true.

But in the sciences, it’s definitely less, partly due to a different treadmill. You need money to do science, and you need scientific results to get money. It is an open secret that most funded NIH proposals are for work that has largely already been done. The researchers then use the money to do the research that will go into the next proposal. But if you have a gap in funding, it is harder to get those results. An extended gap means that your lab shrinks, you may have to take on additional teaching, and you may even lose lab space — putting you in a hole that’s hard to get out of. Which is to say, securing research funding is like being in a relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: if you don’t fund me now, you will never fund me again.

That dynamic contributes to the passive acceptance of corruption by scientists, mainly by making them risk averse. In my experience, most academics want to do the right thing. It’s just that doing the right thing often comes at a cost that few are willing to pay. And, viewed from a certain perspective, they may be right.

When you’re a grad student, you’re told that tenure is the goal, that once you get it, you’re set. What you’re not told is that there are elaborate systems of carrots and sticks all the way up the hierarchy. Critics of the Platonic ideal of tenure will tell you that these incentives are necessary to deal with the accumulation of “dead wood”. And everyone has stories of the worthless professor who got tenure and then quit working altogether. Defenses of the erosion of tenure tend to sound a lot like defenses of mass surveillance: if you keep doing good work, you’ve got nothing to worry about!

But one of the lessons of the Flint water crisis is this: any system of rewards and punishments can be captured and put to work towards corrupt ends. You build a system to punish people for not working hard enough, and someone will figure out how to use that system to make people fearful enough of punishment that they are unwilling to question or criticize authority.

Yes, encouraging people to fight for more and more funding does make them work harder, but if none of them are willing to ask the important questions, what’s the point?

Resources for Independent Scholars

Jacqui Shine has published a piece at Chronicle Vitae where she describes some of the ways in which academics without a university affiliation can access certain library resources. Based on a variety of conversations over the past few years, this seems to be the issue that offers the greatest challenge to independent scholars. I am still cautiously optimistic that, if the current trend towards open-access publishing continues, library access will be less of a barrier to entry over time. However, the extent to which relevant resources are openly available varies from field to field.

Shine’s article mentions a number of resources that I was previously unfamiliar with, so if you’re looking for ideas, check it out. Her list is especially rich on the humanities side — lots of ideas about accessing old newspapers, for example. She put in a call for more ideas in the comments, so hopefully even more stuff will show up there.

Two Academia Horror Stories out of UC Berkeley

Two stories came out of UC Berkeley over the weekend that will make you question your opinion of academia — or maybe reinforce your opinion.

The first story comes from Michael Eisen’s blog and has a bad news, good news, bad news flavor. The bad news is that a prominent astronomy professor at Berkeley named Geoffrey Marcy has been accused of “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping” in a complaint to the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination filed by four women.

The good news is that the process worked as intended! An investigation concluded that Marcy was guilty, and the results of the investigation were made public. The matter was not swept under the rug. The university did not attack the women. Hopefully this will mean that other victims of harassment at Berkeley will feel comfortable coming forward in the future.

The bad news is that the process worked as intended! Marcy issued a non-apology apology, and it seems that he will face no further repercussions for his actions. None. This is a real win-win for the university. It presents the veneer of justice, thereby maintaining the university’s ability to present itself as a committed champion of victims. But at the same time, it does not have to deal with the consequences of losing a prominent faculty member — or doing anything really, besides making him feel mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes.

The message to faculty seems fairly clear. You should not sexually harass or assault your subordinates. But if you do, ¯\_(?)_/¯.

Story number two comes from the UC Berkeley math department. Alexander Coward has a long post about why he is leaving his teaching position there. Basically, he is being forced out of the position because his teaching is too successful. Compared with others in the department, he teaches larger numbers of students, receives higher evaluations, and produces better results (in terms of student performance moving forward).

A department that cared about teaching its students might look at this situation and ask, “How can we replicate what he is doing? Maybe adopt his techniques across the department?” But of course, a real department says, “Oh no! He’s making the rest of us look bad. Stop him!”

Now this is, of course, just one side of the story. However, it rings true to me, and it is difficult to imagine what additional perspective the department might offer that would make this look like anything other than gross malfeasance on their part.

One of the interesting parts comes at the end of the post, which points out that this is not just a question of bruised egos:

In the April 18th, 2014 memo to me then Chair Ogus wrote: “We explained to you before you accepted the position that the idea of employing a full-time lecturer is controversial in our department.” This raises the question of why it was controversial. It was controversial because the way the Mathematics Department justifies its size on campus is through the teaching of large service courses for other majors. I have been told by Craig Evans that around 15,000 students take classes with the UC Berkeley Mathematics Department each year. On the other hand, mathematicians typically do not bring in giant grants like experimental scientists, and compared to most other departments that do not bring in super-grants the Mathematics Department is large. The Mathematics Department uses its privileged role in providing service teaching for undergraduates in all the sciences and social sciences to justify its size and all the trappings that go with that like funding and office space. The problem is that their reliance on teaching to justify size and resources is not commensurate with a commitment to doing a good job.


Indeed, it is an open secret on the UC Berkeley campus that the administration and other departments are jolly cross with the Mathematics Department for not preparing students adequately. The argument used by the Mathematics Department in response to this is to say something like “It’s easy for you, you teach these cool subjects that students are interested in and choose to do because it’s their chosen major. Take it from us. Teaching these kids calculus is just impossible. That’s why our student evaluations are terrible and students aren’t prepared for your courses.” The argument then concludes, as articulated by a member of Senate Faculty in his response to my open letter of December 15, 2014, something like: “Give us more money and more resources and we’ll do better.”


Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument, and that is why so many people conspired to make it not so, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me.

This is a scam you see everywhere — the expansion of the national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11 comes to mind. If you do your job poorly, you can blame it on not enough resources. If you can keep that cycle going, you can get paid more and more to do less and less. It’s good work if you can get it.

Symposium on Academic Bureaucracy

On July 1, a symposium at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts tackled the role of bureaucracy in academia. The event was framed this way:

Does bureaucracy go hand in hand with neoliberalism, or is it neoliberalism’s guilty secret, a riposte to its professed efficiency? How is bureaucracy represented in literature and theory – from Franz Kafka to David Foster Wallace, Max Weber to Michel Foucault; and what do these representations reveal about the relationship between bureaucracy and human nature in post-industrial society? We all recognise form filling and box ticking as the pointless paraphernalia of audit culture, yet we comply with it anyway. Could it be that for all its inhuman, lifeless character, we are somehow attracted to bureaucracy because it is untaxing, relaxing, and procrastinatory, in a world that prizes relentless hard work and high-speed commerce?

Times Higher Education covered the symposium, featuring some nice comments from the participants. Elaine Glaser, one of the event’s organizers,

questioned whether the red tape existed “to make us keep our heads down” and said that it smacked of a “punitive attitude: if you enjoy your work, you should be doing more form-filling”.

A related sentiment was articulated by Mark Fisher:

The real goal of neoliberal managerialism, in Dr Fisher’s view, was “to stop people talking to each other, by breaking up departments and bringing in professional administrators”. Although he was all in favour of administrators and managers whose basic roles were troubleshooting and providing support for academics to do their jobs, “‘professional administrators’ are neither professional nor administrators”.

Pathological bureaucracy is just one of the features of the modern university that have disenchanted so many scholars across the academic landscape. In fact, many of the Ronin Institute’s members have made similar observations in explaining their decisions to leave traditional academia.

The problem is that bureaucracy has an inherent growth dynamic that can be difficult to fight against, or even notice. And yet, fighting against that growth is a necessity. One of the principles we’re committed to here is the Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. The core of the idea is that you should never add any layer of complexity that is not absolutely necessary.

If that seems obvious, it may be that I have not yet explained it clearly enough. There are lots of things that are nice to have — things that seem like they should make life easier, or that will guard against some very specific disaster. But every one of these comes at a cost. Of course there is the cost of paying an additional bureaucrat, but there is also the cost of redirecting the time and energy of the individual scholars away from the activities that, in name at least, are the core purpose of academia: research and teaching.

That means that there may be certain things you don’t do, even if the local cost-benefit analysis seems to say that you should. Because once you add something — a layer of regulation or a formal procedure or a staff position — it almost never goes away. You wind up committing to the costs, but tend not to reevaluate the benefits.

So can we actually build something that can function in the modern world while fighting hard against bureaucratic creep? Let’s find out!

h/t Thanks to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Alex Lancaster

News Flash: Postdocs are a Screw Job

To people who have been involved with academic science recently (say, the past forty years), this will not come as a shock, but the National Academy has released a report concluding that, well, being a postdoc sucks. The report, released in December, was summarized by Science Careers:

The penetrating analysis in The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited comes all the way up to, but does not actually state, some inconvenient realities: For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career. If graduate students had accurate information about what lay ahead, many would—and should—choose not to become postdocs.

The traditional postdoc is a weird job. You typically work long hours for not enough pay in a semi-autonomous position where you have all of the responsibility, but for which much of the credit will ultimately go to your boss.

Which is to say, it is a lot like most other crappy jobs.

The thing that is so weird about postdocs, and much of academia, is that these are people who apparently have succeeded at the very highest levels. They studied hard, worked hard, became world-class experts in something. And yet they are getting paid a lot less than they would be had they taken a “regular” job.

It seems like a fundamentally untenable system, or at least one that is destined to drive the best and the brightest out of science careers. In fact, the only reason the system has not yet collapsed under the weight of its own iniquity is because of the immense capacity of people to delude themselves. The thing is, what makes it all worth it (in the mind of the delusional and underpaid postdoc) is that this is the honorable path, which will eventually lead to a coveted faculty position. But the fact is, this is the outcome for only a small minority of postdocs:

workforce infographic ASCB COMPASSimage via Talebearing

In a way, graduate students and postdocs are just like student athletes. They provide cheap labor that generates value for Universities. They are paid well below their actual worth, with two justifications: 1) they are receiving “training”, and 2) they will be rewarded later (with tenure / a professional career). The problem, of course, is that this training is of highly variable quality, and is often nonexistent for postdocs. And, as with athletes, most will not actually get that long-term payoff.

There is more and more recognition of the fact that not everyone goes on to get (or even wants) a tenure-track position. But this alone does not seem to be altering the structure of the system. Fundamentally, as long as there are enough people who are willing to put up with the current arrangement to fill the seats, there will be no real incentive to change. But there are definitely people who choose to opt out, and I worry about that.

Here’s the thing. Who is it who chooses to leave before or during a postdoc? Well, compared to the person who stays put, they are probably more self aware, better able to step back and see the big picture, better able to “think outside the box”, as they say in 1990s-era management seminars. In short, the person who looks at how postdocs work and says “screw this” is exactly the sort of person who is most likely to make a genuine contribution to science. Those who keep their heads down, don’t question the system, and carry on will certainly make great worker bees, and will competently design and perform the obvious next experiment. But will they really be the ones who give us genuine innovation and insight?

So, even if the current system is able to sustain itself for a while longer, it is already failing to do what we claim we want it to do: train and empower the brightest and most creative minds to make the next set of big discoveries.

(h/t Viviane Callier)