27 January 2012

Replace “old” with “rich”

At some point during Science Online 12, Maggie Koerth-Baker (in middle of picture) asked,

Do you think the public communication conflicts have to do with older scientists vs. younger scientists?

Ah yes, the old joke: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

Let’s play a game. Think about some aspect of the way science is conducted know that you think needs reform: valuing outreach to the community (as in Maggie’s question above), promoting open access, not paying so much attention to journal impact factor. I bet that for each of those, someone who has written:

“Things will change as the new generation of scientists comes in.”

Try this: any time you see a statement about the culture of science where someone invokes age, replace “age” with “money.” When you hear people talk about “senior scientists,” replace it with “funded scientists.” * To be even more precise, “institutions with funded scientists.”

Institutions value money, and they value it in a way that is amplified and greater than the way individuals in that institution value money. Some institutions have gotten good at extracting money from research. The greater the money prospects, the more stultified and problematic the reward system becomes.

I’ve certainly seen a shift at my own institution. When I interviewed here, I was told by one administrator, “It’s not publish or perish here.” That was just at the start of a push to get more research here. As we have grown our research program, events were held to recognize people who publish in tier one journals and bring in more than a million dollars in grant money. I’m starting to hear things like, “We need to start paying attention to the impact factor of journals where people publish.”

Even when I hear administrators talk about “getting kids excited about science,” sometimes it feels like there’s a subtext of, “so they will be tuition paying students at our university in a few years.”

When you talk about how to changing academic and scientific culture, you’re talking about how to break the allure of money at the institutional level, rather than dealing with individual people who are recalcitrant.

With funding flat for the foreseeable future, it may be that the scientific reward scheme will change if the prospects for money become less predictable. Unfortunately, I think it more likely that there will be a greater push to adopt a dubious reward system that focuses on getting money, creating more prejudices against public science communication rather than less.

* Obviously, age and funding are correlated. In the United States, the average age of getting a research grant has been going up. I think it’s now somewhere in the 40s in many federal agencies.

Photo by _ColinS_ on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Bingo! I have often found in my field that the people who care the least about issues of open access and declining NSF funding are those who are the best funded themselves.