Nature : #researchrealities

This post is an answer to Nature’s #ResearchRealities call

Young, talented — and fed-up? What are your biggest frustrations as a scientist trying to build a research group?

I own a License in communication, a Master in media studies, a Ph.D. in management and a qualification as an assistant professor of a geography. Last year, I managed an international research about urban studies and I am currently pursuing a postdoc in computer science. “Brilliant! So many disciplines, how unusual and interesting !”, academics usually tell me at conference dinners. Truth is, those many disciplines forbid me to follow a career in academia.

Big words like “inter-disciplinary” fit well in grant proposals but are absolute deal-breakers for anyone who try to live up to them. To make your way here, You first need to belong to a well-identified “community”. A community is a clique of experts who know each other for years. Each year, they go to the same conferences to exchange about latest findings and progress. They recognize themselves as peers. Their practices and professional activities are constrained in the realm of the discipline.

Changing community is like changing cities. When you arrive, you don’t know anybody anymore. Do not expect people to come and speak to you. Everyone in the know is busy catching up with old friends. Even if you have no idea about what who they are talking about, don’t worry. It just takes time. Don’t ever mention where do you come from. Don’t imagine anyone will ever risk his/her tenure or reputation in adventures with another discipline. People like to make babies in their own tribes. If it is not relevant to the discipline, then just ignore it. Quote this big guy you saw at the conference last year and it will be okay. If you are asked why you quote people from other disciplines, just pretend it was required by the funding institution. People in the community have to feel that you plan to make a career here, or they won’t bother answering your calls.

This cynical generalization reflects fairly my experience of switching academic communities. Over the years, I still not belong to a single of those which makes my life really tougher. Despite recognition for my work, I may eventually quit academia sooner that I wished because I there is no more ways for me to evolve. Sophisticated forms of peer-validation have brought great specialization and progress to science. It also digs the grave of the primary tool for scientists : conversation.

Rebuilding spaces for discussions between scientific domains, but also with engineering and arts, is mandatory to tackle complex questions science is facing today. Deep changes in institutions (curriculums, funding, evaluation) and scientific methods are required to surpass the incoherent bureaucracy that scattered scientific domains today. Discovering common research territories simply lacks incentive for academics. Mechanics for evaluation of non-disciplinary work are to be invented. Moreover, they may constitute a threat to the painfully crafted scheme of peer-reviews.

Few well-funded institutions have started to experiment in creating dedicated institutes, circumventing the problem. Still, for the majority of researchers, curiosity will cost you your career or your family - depending on how you handle it. Many young and talented researchers are lacking proper space in academia to bring their ideas and methods. Discovery in science has already started to slip out of the academic field to the private sector. New forms of initiatives are flourishing but academia still tries hard to not pass the torch. The trend may continue until the last university closes its doors. It may shift direction with a larger movement from academics. Either way, we can just be hopeful about what is coming next.

Posted on on Oct 30, 2016

This text was originally published in read/write blog.

A question? A comment?

Please send it to me by email or on Twitter.