By Research Scholar Jose Luis Perez Vazquez, whose book, The Rise of the Scientist Bureaucrat, has just been published.
Through the years I have seen trainees wanting to perform research in academia only to abandon the idea due to what they perceive around them, due to what they sense will become of them after joining the professorial ranks. I have also met many lay people who were impressed, to say the least, by certain aspects of research in academia. Thus I decided to write a book on scientific research in our times to inform lay audiences and young trainees about the rise of a new type of scientist: the scientist bureaucrat (https://www.springer.com/in/book/9783030123253). It is a brief account of how the practice of science and its academic environment have been transformed due to current socio-economic circumstances.
There is no room here to go over the many details about this matter that are touched upon in the book, for the topics are many, from peer review to the publication game, passing through the funding tendencies and the assessment of scholars by institutions, things that all professional scholars know about (but perhaps not the young fellows and general populace). I have illustrated current shortcomings with some of my personal experiences … and a touch of humour. Suffice to say that today’s researchers are buried in bureaucracy and financial issues. The driving forces behind a scholar ?e.g. creativity, curiosity, motivation? are drowned in the monstrous sea of administration, corporatization of academia, and intense competition for funds and positions. In contrast to past generations, we “new scientists” are left with almost no time to dedicate to what we should be doing: research, creative work, experiments, data analysis. Now, principal investigators (PIs) have trainees and technicians doing all these things for them, whereas some PIs are so busy with administrative chores and searching for money to keep their laboratories going that barely step into their laboratory. This is one of the various paradoxes expounded in the text, for after all we were taught how to do good quality experiments, data analysis, in a word, research; yet after joining the professorial ranks we change habits, now we research for funds, we “analyse” bureaucratic data.
But not all is about complaining, or rather, describing the reality as it is. I present too in the book sections on possible solutions to circumvent some of the aspects that prevent us from doing what we (or at least most of us) really like: real research. While most of the solutions are just specific workarounds to overcome certain things (that, again, professional scientists know about but may be informative to trainees), I wanted as well to propose some general solutions to, at least in part, go back to what true scholarship is. It perhaps should be acknowledged that the current state was inevitable; it had to happen because science is immersed in society, and modern society is governed by financial concerns and bureaucracy. If I were to point out a central theme that brought about the current status quo, it could be the result of the current global economic situation which together with the spread of administration and the deep involvement of politicians into the fabric of academia is deviating scholarship from what once was. But there may be still time to revert.
To me, the main cause of trouble we face today is lack of balance that pervades many aspects of research. Imbalance in funding big groups versus the individual scientist (somehow in these days funding agencies prefer to award grants to big groups, in spite of the fact that it is the individual scientist the driving force behind research and that putting many heads together does not equal to better scientific outcome); disparity in funds for infrastructure versus operating research; inequality in the scientists’ time dedicated for administrative work versus real research in the laboratory; disproportion, inequity in the appraisal of research favouring the administrative and lucrative outcomes over work done in the laboratory … It is my opinion that the general situation in academia and science in particular would be greatly improved if an equilibrium was found in these aspects: a fairer distribution of resources between big groups and individual researchers, between hypothesis-driven and question-driven projects, between utilitarian and holistic grant proposals, a balanced evaluation of scholars considering work in the laboratory and administration. Because the problem is not that some administration has to be carried out ?I don’t think anybody would complain if some bureaucracy occupied a little of our time? but the problem is that these activities occupy most of our time as scientists, and we have little left for what we really like: to think, to reflect on questions, perform experiments, analyse data, and interpret results.
In the text I mention what perhaps is the most intriguing situation, the most paradoxical of all. While the majority of researchers disagree about what academia has become, we scientists proceed doing things as though we did not notice. If almost all of us realise the present condition, why don’t we change it? Some reasons have been advanced, for instance in Eliane Glaser’s article “Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?” (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/bureaucracy-why-wont-scholars-break-their-paper-chains/2020256.article). But I am not sure why. Inertia comes to mind, perchance herd mentality. To some extent one has the impression that we behave as if we did not know, or decided to ignore the situation. It has been my experience that one day I discuss matters with a colleague about the folly of impact factors or any other aspect, both of us voicing our disapproval, and yet, a few days later I meet my colleague in the hall and starts telling me with great enthusiasm that they have a paper accepted in this or that journal of very high impact factor…
Nonetheless, things appear to be changing thanks to initiatives talked about in the book like the Bratislava Declaration, the Leiden Manifesto, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and others. These provide reasons to be optimistic, but it will take time, and most likely I won’t see it, but I think some aspects will revert to what academia once was.
One action that I think is fundamental to solve the current situation has been in fact alluded in the aforementioned Glaser’s article: “Ultimately, resistance is impossible without collective solidarity.” I agree, it is in the collective realisation, agreement, and behaviour where the real possible solution stands. Politicians and bureaucrats may have the money and resources but in the end are we, scholars, performing these tasks of, say, using impact factors or numbers of publications to judge colleagues and institutions or to award grants. Imagine all scientists, simultaneously, refused to use these metrics. What are the policy-makers going to do? They cannot evaluate grant proposals or papers, or scholars applying for promotions; they don’t have the knowledge. But if only a few decide not to comply with the bureaucrats’ commands, then it will be futile, for other, more compliant, academics will be found and ask to perform those duties. Hence, in the final analysis, it all depends on us scientists.
Jose Luis Perez Velazquez was born in Zaragoza (Spain) and received an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a PhD in Molecular Physiology & Biophysics. He worked as a Senior Scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and was Professor at the University of Toronto. Currently he is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and lives in the natural paradise of Asturias, in Northern Spain.
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.
“why don’t we change it?”: Because we don’t control it. I’ve known faculty members who were very reluctant to acknowledge this, but they no longer have much power over institutional policies.* This is part of what “professionalizing the administration” and “running the university like a business” mean in practice. To put it rudely, most academics are now just genteel wage slaves.
“resistance is impossible without collective solidarity.”: Undoubtedly. However, in the USA, white-collar workers, including faculty members (at least outside social studies), tend to presume that “collective solidarity” is for factory workers, not exalted beings such as themselves. It’s going to take awhile for that presumption to fade away.
*For example, many faculty members at UC Davis called for the removal of the chancellor, Linda Katehi, over her serious mishandling of student protests on the campus, which besides harming a bunch of students cost the university millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements and reams of terrible publicity. And the response of the president and the regents was … crickets, more or less. (Years later, Katehi was forced to resign, but mainly over financial conflicts of interest. Thus we saw what the president and the regents do and don’t care about.)
And here’s the thing: a couple of those Davis faculty members had once confidently assured me that if an administrator really pissed them off, they and other faculty members could arrange for that administrator to be removed. I was skeptical at the time, and I’d say the Katehi affair starkly exposed that threat as empty.