Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!
There’s a new study out by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that looks at the affordability of 2000 colleges for a number of hypothetical students representing different family and economic situations. There’s a nice summary of the study at the Atlantic. Here’s the take-home message:
Of the more than 2,000 colleges analyzed, IHEP found that almost half were affordable only for students from families making more than $160,000. That means that in addition to being able to afford 90 percent of colleges, half of those colleges are also essentially exclusively reserved for them. For-profit colleges were the least affordable schools, and public colleges were the most affordable. But even then, four-year public colleges that didn’t meet the students’ affordability thresholds were off by an average of $9,000.
For low to moderate income students, with incomes < $69,000 per year, only one to five percent of the colleges studied were affordable. Note that, according to the Census Bureau, median household income in the US in 2015 was less than $56,000.
Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.
You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:
As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.
It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.
We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.
Academics in traditional university environments tend to be keenly aware of where their university ranks, whether they like to admit this or not. Most familiar are the college-level rankings like those from the US News & World Report, which weigh the undergraduate experience heavily. However in the research world, the notion of “excellence” has become the coin of the realm as evidenced by a proliferation of “excellence frameworks” such as the Research Excellence Framework (UK), the German Universities Excellence Initiative, the Excellence in Research for Australia and the Performance Based Research Fund (New Zealand). Given that many resources from capital funds, grants and permanent positions are doled out in accordance with rankings, where one’s institution stands goes beyond mere bragging rights. Most academics understand the arbitrary nature of such rankings and despite regular kvetching that they are either “unfair” (usually from those at an institution “lower” in the rankings) or that they have “finally” recognized the true worth of their institution (usually from those rising in the rankings), the existence of the ranking system itself, is normally taken as given. After all, how are we to sort the worthy from the unworthy?
Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson have published an (ahem), excellent research paper “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence that comprehensively examines both the notion and practices of “excellence” in research. Excellence, as most of the research frameworks define it, essentially boils down to some combination of ranking institutions by their scholars ability to publish in established prestige journals, ability to gain external grants and other easily-measured metric of scholarly output.
Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “excellence” is totally bogus:
…a focus on “excellence” impedes rather than promotes scientific and scholarly activity: it at the same time discourages both the intellectual risk-taking required to make the most significant advances in paradigm-shifting research and the careful “Normal Science” (Kuhn  2012) that allows us to consolidate our knowledge in the wake of such advances. It encourages researchers to engage in counterproductive conscious and unconscious gamesmanship. And it impoverishes science and scholarship by encouraging concentration rather than distribution of effort.
In other words in the context of scientific scholarship: focusing on excellence prevents the two things that we say we want from from science: careful reproducible science and the big breakthroughs. The article covers familiar ground to those who have been following the state of academia including discussions of the lack of reproducibility in science, the pernicious use of journal prestige to evaluate academics, and the general environment of hypercompetition in research. Many, if not most, academics are aware these issues, having been covered extensively in the trade press in recent years, but continue to view them through the lens of their effect on traditional tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty with established research programs. So it is refreshing that the article tackles how the rhetoric of ”excellence” can restrict the range of types and styles of scholarship, issues that are close to the heart of the Ronin Institute:
There is, however, another effect of the drive for “excellence”: a restriction in the range of scholars, of the research and scholarship performed by such scholars, and the impact such research and scholarship has on the larger population. Although “excellence” is commonly presented as the most fair or efficient way to distribute scarce resources (Sewitz, 2014), it in fact can have an impoverishing effect on the very practices that it seeks to encourage. A funding programme that looks to improve a nation’s research capacity by differentially rewarding “excellence” can have the paradoxical effect of reducing this capacity by underfunding the very forms of “normal” work that make science function (Kuhn  2012) or distract attention from national priorities and well-conducted research towards a focus on performance measures of North America and Europe (Vessuri et al., 2014)
The article continues by pointing out that “excellence” is often used as a proxy for academic work that fit certain “standard” modes, which can result in a more bland and conformist world of scholarship:
Given the strong evidence that there is systemic bias within the institutions of research against women, under-represented ethnic groups, non-traditional centres of scholarship, and other disadvantaged groups (for a forthright admission of this bias with regard to non-traditional centres of scholarship, see Goodrich, 1945), it follows that an emphasis on the performance of “excellence”—or, in other words, being able to convince colleagues that one is even more deserving of reward than others in the same field—will create even stronger pressure to conform to unexamined biases and norms within the disciplinary culture: challenging expectations as to what it means to be a scientist is a very difficult way of demonstrating that you are the “best” at science; it is much easier if your appearance, work patterns, and research goals conform to those of which your adjudicators have previous experience. In a culture of “excellence” the quality of work from those who do not work in the expected “normative” fashion run a serious risk of being under-estimated and unrecognised.
As the authors point out it is common in such pieces to identify external factors such as:
institutional administrators captured by neo-liberal ideologies, funders over-focussed on delivering measurable returns rather than positive change, governments obsessed with economic growth at the cost of social or community value
as the primary cultural driver of metric-driven “excellence”. And this is definitely a huge part of the issue (see Ronin blog posts “Graeber on the Transformation of Universities” and “Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities”), but it’s not the only driver. Attributing these issues purely to external forces lets the academy somewhat off the hook since, as the authors continue:
the roots of the problem in fact lie in the internal narratives of the academy and the nature of “excellence” and “quality” as supposedly shared concepts that researchers have developed into shields of their autonomy. The solution to such problems lies not in arguing for more resources for distribution via existing channels as this will simply lead to further concentration and hypercompetition. Instead, we have argued, these internal narratives of the academy must be reformulated.
In other words: academia probably needs to take a look in the mirror once in a while and should question whether current norms really still serve their twin stated goals of encouraging sound “normal” scholarship as well as risky breakthroughs. I would also add: it should be enabling all scholars to participate in whatever way fits their individual talents, rather than promote a “one-size-fits-all” notion of alpha-academic success. There is much more to the article than space allows here, it’s a good piece for anybody interested in the future of scholarship, and it includes a highly detailed bibliography.
Coda: In a nice example of walking the walk, the authors have this note about “subverting traditional scarce markers of prestige” by adopting:
a redistributive approach to the order of their names in the byline. As an international collaboration of uniformly nice people (cf. Moran et al., 2016; Hoover et al., 1987; see Tartamelia, 2014 for an explanation), lacking access to a croquet field (cf. Hassell and May, 1974), writing as individuals rather than an academic version of the Borg (see Guedj, 2009), and not identifying any excellent pun (cf. Alpher et al., 1948; Lord et al., 1986) or “disarmingly quaint nom de guerre” (cf. Mrs Kinpaisby, 2008, 298 [thanks to Oli Duke-Williams for this reference]) to be made from the ordering of our names, we elected to assign index numbers to our surnames and randomize these using an online tool.
Here’s a snippet of Gordon’s interview, published on Feb 17:
I mean, I think the one thing I would say is that – yes – that lay people do tend to think of scientists as being almost kind of like Mr. Spock – that is logical, and everything is kind of decision making, devoid of all that other human baggage like emotion and ambition and greed and all that stuff.
And the truth is, it’s really still very much a human activity. And the application of the scientific method – there’s this kind of ideal view of it, if you look at the books on the philosophy of science and Karl Popper and all this kind of stuff. There’s this very idealized, sort of Platonic ideal of what the scientific method is. But when you start to combine science and commerce, then all that human stuff, it still plays a role. And honestly, it plays a role even in academic research.
And here’s a piece from Alex’s interview, published on the 21st:
I started life thinking I would be an astrophysicist, basically. It was where I was originally when I was an undergrad. And actually I spent about a week in a radio telescope down in Canberra – a while ago now, shall we say? Another century. And I realized that that wasn’t really going to be it for me for the rest of my life. Astrophysics has changed a lot since, but there was a lot of sitting in very quiet, desolate places, pouring over data, and it sounds very glamorous on the outside – but the reality of the day-to-day just turned out that it didn’t really appeal to me.
So, trying to figure out what to do, I decided to finish my engineering degree, which I started with. But I was always interested in evolution from a very young age, I think [from] when I picked up Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, which was written sometime in the 80s. I was just fascinated with the idea of these biomorphs, which were these little creatures that he had built evolutionarily on a Mac. It was nothing to do with real biology, but it was very – basically you could construct these creatures from this very simple genetic code. And it sort of always stayed with me.
Check out the full interviews, and the book!