We are Science

By Chad Orzel

If you listen to people talking about new ways of doing things, you’ll frequently hear references to Science or Academia as if they were vast but monolithic entities existing in their own right. 

Statements like “The culture of Science does not reward open access...” or “Modern Academia does not reward high‑risk research...” are quite common. They also are often paired with a call for external relief, usually through some government mandate: “We need funding agencies to make this a condition of grant funding.”

I always find these statements faintly annoying, because they’re  based entirely on a flawed premise. There is no “Science.” There is no “Academia.” These things do not exist as coherent entities, any more than “The Market” does.

What we think of as “Science” is the result of the individual actions of millions of scientists.

What we think of as “Academia” is the result of the individual actions of millions of people working in higher education: faculty, deans, academic staff.

There are two main implications of these facts, the first being that if you really want to change scientific or academic culture, you need to change the minds of the people making up those cultures. You need to convince them that the things you want them to do are worth doing, and in their best interests to do.

This is a hard project, and it’s the reason why so many people are prone to calling for external mandates to change things. Getting the NSF or the NIH to order people to adopt your preferred behavior seems like an easier task than convincing the people directly. You only need to convince a few agency heads to change, and then, presto, everyone else will go along.

It’s a nice idea, but it’s nothing but a comforting illusion. The funding agencies won’t implement your policies for you, and even if they do, it won’t do any good. When the NIH requested that researchers deposit their data in the PubMed database, they got 4% compliance. Making it a requirement boosted that to 56%, 30% directly by authors with a further 26% from journals after publication–but nowhere near 100%.

Or consider the public outreach requirement of NSF grants. Researchers submitting grants to the NSF are required to include an explanation of what they will do to disseminate their results to a broader audience. I’ve reviewed a good number of NSF proposals over the last few years. Typical responses on the public outreach section are of the form “We train a lot of graduate students in our lab, and some of them will go on to become educators,” which is a complete cop‑out.

The fact is, any attempt by the NIH or any other agency to mandate these sorts of practices is nothing but a bluff that huge numbers of researchers will be happy to call. After all, are they really going to start denying funding based on a failure to meet public outreach requirements? Hardly–especially when the bulk of the review work is done by other researchers in the field. If people in the field are not convinced that outreach or open access are things they ought to be doing, they’re not going to give it any weight in reviewing proposals, and those rules will be every bit as effective as speed limits on major highways, which not even the police bother to heed.

There is no way around the fact that changing scientific or academic culture requires changing the minds of the scientists and academics who make up those cultures. As lovely as it would be to wave a policy wand and have everything magically change overnight, it’s not going to happen.

The second important implication is this: If you want to change  scientific or academic culture, you don’t have to wait for anybody else. There is no “Science,” there is no “Academia”–there are only scientists and academics. If you work in those fields, you can start changing them any time you want.

People will say “Hiring committees don’t look for the right things,” or “Tenure committees don’t reward risky research.” Yet hiring committees and tenure committees are made up of academics. If you are an academic, you can be on those committees–in fact, it’s kind of hard to avoid.

If you think that your institution should be hiring or promoting different sorts of people, get on the relevant committee and make the case for the change you’d like to see. Don’t sit around and wait for the NSF to do it for you.

People will say “Grant agencies don’t fund the right kind of research,” or “The good journals are full of terrible papers.” But grant reviewers and journal referees are drawn from scientists in the relevant fields. And they’re not exactly beating people back with sticks. If you want to review grants or referee papers, it’s not hard to get the opportunity.

If you think that grant agencies and journals should be funding or publishing different things, become a reviewer or a referee and make the case for the change you’d like to see. Demand re‑writes to the papers, mark down the grants with half‑assed outreach sections. You might not win right away, but you might change a few minds on the grant review panels and editorial boards. That’s the first step toward real progress.

People will say “The Ivy League schools set the agenda for all of academia; nothing will change unless Harvard changes.” But if your school is not Harvard, it’s not likely to become Harvard. And you’ll certainly never catch them just by copying them.

Contrary to what they’ll tell you, the Ivies do not have a monopoly on good ideas. They may have more money than your school does, but that doesn’t mean that everything they touch turns to gold.

Don’t wait for Harvard to change–get out there, and make the case for the change you’d like to see in your own institution. If it’s as good an idea as you think, your institution can blaze a trail for everyone else, or at least make up some ground by attracting good people who like what you’re doing. You may find other people copying you.

Together, we are Science, and we are Academia. What we do is not imposed on us by an unchangeable culture of Science; rather, the things we do determine the culture of Science. We have the power to change those cultures by changing our behavior, and making the case for others to do the same. If we want change, we have to do it ourselves, which is a hard job. But here’s the thing: we can do it ourselves, because in the end, we are the thing that needs to change.

Chad Orzel is a professor of physics at Union College in Schenectady, New York. The above originally appeared on his blog, Uncertain Principles.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Ernie Tretkoff

January 2009 (Volume 18, Number 1)

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Articles in this Issue
April Meeting Heads for Denver in May
Physicist Chosen to be Secretary of Energy
Physics Degrees Retain Value in Weak Economy
Nominations are Key to Increasing Number of APS Women Fellows
Murray Stresses Long-Range Planning To Address Key Issues
Civic Engagement Benefits Both Science and Society
LHC is an Avatar of International Science Collaboration
Inside the Beltway
The Back Page
Members in the Media
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Focus on APS Topical Groups
This Month in Physics History