Tuesday, January 14th 2014

The Edge’s Annual Question: The Way We Produce and Advance Science

This year, I was invited to contribute to the Edge Foundation’s Annual Question. Other contributor include Helen Fisher, Irene Pepperberg, Alan Alda, Nina Jablonski, Jay Rosen, and, well 150 others:


The question was, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

My contribution:

The Way We Produce And Advance Science

Last year, I spearheaded a survey and interview research project on the experiences of scientists at field sites. Over sixty percent of the respondents had been sexually harassed, and twenty percent had been sexually assaulted. Sexual predation was only the beginning of what I and my colleagues uncovered: study respondents reported psychological and physical abuses, like being forced to work late into the day without being told when they could head back to camp, not being allowed to urinate, verbal threats and bullying, and being denied food. The majority of perpetrators are fellow scientists senior to the target of abuse, the target themselves usually a female graduate student. Since we started analyzing these data, I haven’t been able to read a single empirical science paper without wondering on whose backs, via whose exploitation, that research was conducted.

When the payoff is millions of dollars of research money, New York Times coverage, Nobel Prizes or even just tenure, we often seem willing to pay any price for scientific discovery and innovation. This is exactly the idea that needs to be retired—that science should be privileged over scientists.

Putting ideas above people is a particularly idealistic way of viewing the scientific enterprise. This view assumes that the field of science is not only meritocratic but that who a scientist is, or where they come from, plays no role in their level of success. Yet it is well known that class, occupational, and educational attainment vary by race, gender, and many other aspects of human diversity, and that these factors do influence who chooses and who stays in science. As unadulterated as we may want to envision science, the scientific enterprise is run by people, and people often run on implicit bias. I know scientists know these things—scientists wrote the papers to which I refer—but I’m not sure we have all internalized the implications. The implications for implicit bias and workplace diversity are that social structure and identity motivate interactions between workers, increasing the chances for exploitation in terms of both overwork and harassment particularly for those who are junior or underrepresented.

Scientists are not blind to the problems of the ways we culturally conceive of scientific work. There are increasing discussions among scientists of the ever-elusive work/life balance. By and large these conversations center around personal ways we can create a better life for ourselves through management of our time and priorities. To my mind, these conversations are a luxury for those who have already survived the gauntlet of being a trainee scientist. But there are few ways to consider or improve work/life balance when you are one of the grunts on the lab floor or fossil dig.

Overwork and exploitation do not lead to scientific advancement nearly as effectively as humane, equitable and respectful workplaces. For instance, recent social relations modeling research reveals that when women are integrated rather than peripheral members of their laboratory group, those labs publish more papers. Further, years of research on counterproductive work behaviors demonstrates that when you create strongly enforced policies and independent lines of reporting, work environments improve and workers are more productive. The hassled, overworked, give-it-all-for-the-job mentality in science is not empirically supported to produce the best work.

The lives of scientists need to be prioritized over scientific discovery in the interest of actually doing better science. I know many of us operate on fear—fear of being scooped, fear of not getting tenure, fear of not having enough funding to do our work, fear even of being exploited ourselves. But we cannot let fear motivate a scheme that crushes potential bright future scientists. The criteria for scholarly excellence should not be based on who survives or evades poor treatment but who has the intellectual chops to make the most meaningful contributions. Thus, trainees need unions and institutional policies to protect them, and senior scientists to enact cultural change. An inclusive, humane workplace is actually the one that will lead to the most rigorous, world-changing scientific discoveries.

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