Changing the playing field and the players

Last year, I was at one of the major conferences in my field. A colleague
and old friend came up to me and started listing off her recent
accomplishments. She’s phenomenal, but it had been a long day, and I asked whether we could just talk about what we cared about whether it was science, kids, or the latest tv we saw?

Luckily, she’s a wonderful person, and she laughed, and then we did talk about the stuff we really cared about. Much of it was science. We both love science.

What I don’t love about science is the seemingly obsessive need to market
oneself. Conferences are becoming places where people seem to download their cvs to each other.  I’m all for celebrating successes, but I’m not sure I really want to hear about ever paper, every experiment, and every grant. Perhaps its sour grapes, but I think it’s because we are all seeming to move through these accomplishments because they are important for careers, but do they actually help people, even us?

Funding to do science keeps shrinking relative to the costs. When I started,
it was hard. Now, it’s even harder and there is no sign that is changing. When people get ready for the job market, they work hard to market their talents and success. It gets even more intense as tenure looms. Does it create the best work? I wonder. Putting brilliant people under huge stress so they go flat out to build their work, or realistically, their brand? That’s not what helps deal with huge challenges. I get that it is what we all feel like we need to do to survive, but maybe, we need to change the system instead.

I want to change how we do science. I want it to stop being about the
accolades and individual accomplishments. I want it to stop being about how one person, one lab, did some particular thing. I want it to stop being something that some of us do. I want it to be something all of us do.

I don’t want people to feel like they should couch their statements with
whether they are a scientist or not. I don’t want people to feel like they
aren’t capable of understanding math and science. I can’t think of many
disciplines in which people fundamentally feel outside of what is going on. I
still don’t really understand some of the existentialists, but I’ve never felt
like I should explain, I’m not a literary scholar when I dive in. I have
opinions, and I dare you to find someone who has read Camus who doesn’t.

We are born curious. We are born wondering, questioning, learning. We have a responsibility as human beings to continue to wonder, to question, and to learn. Are the more intense storms we see on the East Coast a function of the warming of the oceans? That is not the realm of science, that is the realm of survival, and each of us, regardless of our background should want to learn, and each of us who is learning should reach out to our fellow humans and help understand what is happening.

I believe in inclusion in science, but I believe you cannot have real
inclusion until the notion of who is a scientist is exploded. We are all
scientists. We all have to be scientists to see the world as it is, ask the
right questions and come up with the creative solutions we need to survive.

So, with all of that, how do we change science? How we fund science is a big
part of that. In grant reviews, we all assess whether a person or team of people are capable. We look at their biosketches, at their accomplishments. We need to find a way that looks at whether the team has the expertise needed for a project. We need to develop ways to assess whether the group understands how to work together. We need to celebrate the work at the interfaces of traditional disciplines and ideas. We need to celebrate work that engages people across disciplines, areas, and ideas regardless of their backgrounds and expertise. We need to celebrate ideas that are creative and different but also well motivated, and we need to help people outside of traditional environments to learn how to propose ideas and support them.

In our lab, we often joke that we are unhindered by knowledge. It’s not that
we think knowledge is not important- it is essential. But, it can be easy, when wading into all of the things that have been done, to believe that there is nothing that will work and that everything has been done. The gift of being new is not knowing. The gift of collaboration is new perspectives. If we want science to be creative and transformative, we need to open the door. We need to change how we celebrate, communicate, and investigate what might be possible.