Why I will leave science (part two)

I explained previously a serious issue in academic science careers. The issue in a nutshell being that academic science attempts to sort candidates when they are 25-35 years old and only offer career pathways to those assumed to be the very best forcing all the rest into other jobs. At first glance it seems there is nothing inherently wrong with this ideal but as I will show in practice many problems arise due to this system. 

The first really nasty aspect of only giving career to the "best" is the intense competition it breeds. One of many reasons the worth of a particular academic is so hard to assess is that we are all required to portray ourselves as the best at all times. Anything that might contribute to this illusion is gamed. CV and profiles are professionally sexed up, volumes of irrelevant papers are spewed out metronomically, irrelevant work is cited to reward valuable allies, experiments are setup solely to match the interests of important journals, research interests are updated monthly to align with the current trends and keywords, genuine understandable mistakes are denied or covered up, the potential impact of research is hugely oversold, ideas and credit are stolen at every level, pointless politically motivated time wasting collaborations are formed, crucial foundation work by others is glossed over and competing researchers and methods are damned and rubbished by any means available whenever possible. 

The language of researcher reviews clearly reveals this drive to be viewed as the best. A researcher which is assessed as merely "above average" has his days numbered. Some funding review systems are so distorted that to have any chance you need maximum scores across the board and extra glowing comments about how outstanding you are just to have a chance of getting funding. The degree by which superlatives are abused is quite staggering. It makes parents' judgement of their own kids abilities look understated and harsh.

The impressive progressive open altruistic research done by excited humble collaborative scientists you hear so much about from outreach speakers and smiling presenters on popular TV shows is as dead as the dodo in everyday practice. 

Even if, language abuse aside, everything worked as it was meant to1 it is a terrible system. Christ knows how many people would have become world changing scientists but instead have been kicked out as they had a dip due to one "bad" result, sickness, a relationship problem, a death in their family, a move to a new location, a piece of equipment breaking or just wanting to start a family. Conversely I know many people who had one or two great years or who at least managed to fool referees into believing this that, immediately after the funding award, "burnt out" or just slowed down on the basis they had already won. Just imagine if immediately after training we sacked 95% of young firemen or teachers or lawyers or police or nurses or surgeons or even bankers. Could any other service or company operate like that? For basically all other highly trained career specialists we accept retaining those who are trained is crucial to avoid needless waste.

The only reason I think we accept the fake necessity of this flawed assessment is that we do not actually realize quite how crucial bread and butter scientific research is to our society. The widespread incorrect view is that genius scientists are important but average ones would probably be better off doing something else. For example the importance of an average fireman holding the water hose fighting a raging fire about to burn a trapped family is obvious to all bystanders. The importance of the average computer scientist who refined the finite element simulation that led to the building design that gave those trapped the time for the fireman to actually get there and save them is not obvious. Without both the average fireman AND the average scientist the family would burn. Given this should a career pathway not exist for that average scientist just as it does for the average fireman?

Selecting only the best at this stage is also massively sexist. Not because men are inherently better researchers (they most certainly are not). However if you make a system ridiculously competitive amongst candidates mostly in their late 20s and early 30s men have a natural unfair advantage. Namely they do not have to take a break to have kids. It is very hard to be in the top few percent if you take even a couple of months break especially given the assessed period might only be a few years. Of course supporters2 would point to the funding agencies guidelines generally say scientists should only judged by the opportunities they had. Unfourtunately this is utter bollocks which is clearly revealed in the stats. eg the massively skewed awarding of funding to prestigious universities. In practice everyone knows the current "pathway" sneakily hints to women to choose between delaying having kids, which is biologically risky, and optimising their small chances of a scientific career. Of course this does also apply to men but to a very much smaller degree3

Currently academic science pathways are optimized for the safely established, the reckless young, the rich and those nasty folk who enjoy productivity damaging workplace politics. Science as we now know it has it origins as a rich gentleman's pastime. The utter lack of job security or career structures for the average worker in academic research seems to suggest to me it is heading back that way.

(Edit: People have pointed out that fixing this pathway might require extra money. Fine I accept that. In which case the choice is simple find the money to fix it or stop promoting science as a career that average people can actually aspire to.) 


  1. And assuming you had found a currently non-existent way to accurate extrapolate the future worth of a scientist.
  2. Supporters of the current system are generally limited to those without experience of the funding system or those who have past this stage.
  3. If you fix the pathway you automatically remove the need for needlessly divisive women-only or women-preferred funding designed to counteract the inherent sexism of the currently used flawed assessment. I would have thought everyone could support this regardless of gender as everyone benefits.