Academia is supposed to be a meritocracy: You rise through the ranks because your work (and, by extension, you) is better than someone else’s. I think this emphasis on merit might be doing people a disservice, in a couple of ways.
The entire process de-emphasizes happenstance and luck. People chase and chase and chase after those grants and high impact publications, figuring that if they just work that much harder, they must get them. Particularly in tight financial times like these, where there are more proposals and papers submitted than can be published, you’re essentially playing a lottery. There is just no way to be that much more outstanding than all the other bright people to ensure success.
And I think this can be very demoralizing for people. Academics are usually very bright people. For much of their lives, things have often been relatively easy for them academically. They do well in school, through their undergrad degree, grad school, and so on.
But then they start reaching the point where things aren’t working as well as one would hope. They get a job at an undergrad university instead of that major research university you’ve been working towards for a decade or more. They don’t get the grant. Again. You can’t get the publications in the journals you want. And when these things happen? There’s that little niggling voice in the back of your head saying, “Well, it’s a meritocracy, so you deserve what you get. Loser.”
From reading a lot of other academic blogs, and comments thereupon, I sense that a very particular path of success in research is presented to students that utterly buys into the meritocracy model and utterly discounts the lottery-like aspects of the career.
It could impede science more generally. People could be pursuing that last experiment, that last piece of data so that they can get it in a “better” journal, rather than publishing something that is perfectly interesting in its own right for others to see. People can get to be afraid of shipping.
For a supposed left-wing institution, academia often has some of the competitive elements associated with right-wing politics.