Credit: clement127 (Flickr).Credit: clement127 (Flickr).

Rethinking Academic Culture

by • March 2, 2016 • Career, Rebecca Delker, Science Education, Scientific TrainingComments (0)6591


By Rebecca Delker, PhD

At the root of science is a desire to understand ourselves and the world around us. It is this desire that underpins innovations that become world-changing technologies; and it is this desire that fuels scientists. It is the passion for the work that makes the rigors of research – the time commitment necessary, the oftentimes monotony, and the oh-so-many failed experiments – worth it, (mostly) every single day. Put simply, to be a scientist is to love science. But, in our current academic culture where success is measured not by the scientific process but by the product, to be a scientist is also to live and work on the rim of the disconnect between the realities of research and the expectations of academia that so oft ignore them. And it is in this culture where passion for science and for success in science makes scientists susceptible to the culture of shame that is pervasive in academics today.


I borrowed that idea – culture of shame – from self-proclaimed shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown – a woman I have only recently discovered but quickly became obsessed with, immersing myself in a Brené Brown-binge of TED talks (here and here), interviews, and books (here and here). A shame-prone culture, as she states, is one where the use of fear is used as a management tool, where self-worth is tied to achievement and productivity, where perfectionism is the way of the land, where narrow standards measure worth, and where creativity and risk-taking are suffocated (Daring Greatly, Chapter 1). I think all of us can recognize at least some of these characteristics in academic science. I certainly can. And it’s this culture, not the science, at the root of my growing frustration with academia. Brown’s words capture perfectly the feelings and thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for the last many years – thoughts that were reinvigorated this past September when a prestigious scientific journal took to Instagram to wish post-docs a “happy and productive Labor Day.” September is long gone and the post’s mildly humorous take on #postdoclife buried in the ‘gram archives, but our broken culture, of which that post is a mere symptom, persists.


This culture, as Brown deftly identified, is one of scarcity – or more simply put, the never enough culture. Through seeking the unifying, head-nodding laughs of a truth widely understood, the aforementioned post very accurately identified a well-known downside of academic life: the expectation for long hours, even on the weekends and national holidays, because it’s just never enough. Without necessarily intending to, this post, written by one of the leading publications in biomedical research, was perpetuating the shame felt by post docs and other scientists derived from feelings of not having accomplished enough – essentially of having failed.


In the collective mind of academia – though without much evidence to support the claim – quality and quantity tend toward equivalence such that success is linked to the quantity of hours spent in the lab. While more often than not those extra hours prove to not be essential, we have all felt the pressure to choose work over another aspect of life. I aim not to downplay the vast amount of work that research requires – it’s a lot – but rather to highlight how time has surpassed itself as a measure of seconds ticking by to a metric by which the quality of a scientist is determined. By reducing the outcomes, especially failures, of experiments down to time spent in the lab (or vacations and holidays skipped), we are in effect placing the responsibility of those failures on the scientist. The result is a culture in which the sum of hours worked (greater than the norm) is worn as a badge of honor and feelings of pride and accomplishment go hand-in-hand with feelings of being overworked and exhausted.


The presence of self in our science is not unexpected. If someone were to ask me to choose words that best describe me, scientist would be at the top of the list. It is part of my identity both in and out of the lab and I imagine the same is true for many of my colleagues. The problem arises when experimental failures become personal failures, and in our current culture the equation between scientific success and self-worth is too often made. As a start, simply look at the language we use to describe technical finesse: good hands produce successful experiments; bad hands do not. It’s as if the fate of the experiment was genetically encoded. In reality, though, even the best hands can’t always generate the desired results because often we (and our hands) can’t comprehend all of the unknowns at play.


What is paramount to understanding how this culture of shame was created and persists is our definition of success and of failure. There is a growing misunderstanding in our culture-at-large of what science actually is. The way we educate, and thus what expectations have become, is that science is a series of facts – untouchable, black and white conclusions. An emphasis on information revealed by experiments, rather than the process, strengthens this misunderstanding by glossing over the critical thinking required to interpret what is often very nuanced data.


While scientists may not fall victim to this mentality to such an extreme, we are not innocent either. Within academic circles, too, the process of science often comes second to the findings; and this can largely be explained by the product-driven nature of science these days. In an environment with decreased funding and insufficient academic positions for the growing number of scientists, the product, that is publications, becomes the focus. It also becomes the means by which success and failure are defined. In this culture, success, measured by nominally quantitative metrics that rank the importance of scientific work and the quality of scientists, relies on publishing a paper – a big one, preferably, and quickly. Everything else may as well be called failure.


“I saw the results, and I wanted to throw myself off a bridge” (The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Chapter 7). This is an actual quote from an interview with a biochemist conducted by researcher Kevin Dunbar who wanted to understand exactly how science works. His findings, which would surprise no practicing scientist, reveal that most experiments fail; they “rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us.” The quote from the biochemist above is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates the point that unanticipated results that are inconsistent with initial hypotheses – the majority of the results we deal with— are treated as failures even though they may reveal a new (not yet understood) fact. Dunbar went on to show that this response is due in part to the human tendency to focus in on evidence that is consistent with current theories. I would argue, though, that the product-driven nature of academic science that exclusively rewards publishable, positive results only strengthens this. As Dunbar states, “the problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail – its that most failures are ignored.”


Stuart Firestein, neuroscientist at Columbia University and author of two books (here and here), takes this idea a step farther and reminds us that not only is science a process teeming with failure, but that failure is just as necessary as success to move science forward. “This iterative process – weaving from failure to failure, each one sufficiently better than the last – is how science often progresses,” he says. To forget this, as we often do, is not only psychologically damaging to the people conducting the science but horribly detrimental to the science itself. Not only does every failure pushed aside represent a lost opportunity to explore new terrain, but our narrow definition of success stifles creativity – an endeavor that requires enough time for missteps and recalculations.


So how do we fix our culture of shame? On this, we can extract some sage advice from Firestein and Brown: we need to become a lot more comfortable with uncertainty. Firestein advocates for an emphasis on ignorance – not stupidity, but simply the absence of knowledge – in science. Rather than obsessing over our quest to find an answer and eliminate any remnant of not knowing, we must embrace the idea that it is this not-knowing that drives science. “Answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.” And in doing so, drive innovation. Brown would call this same idea vulnerability. While most of us associate vulnerability with weakness, it is, as Brown defines it, uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure; it is the courage to accept not-knowing, failure and imperfection that serves as a prerequisite for creativity in science and many other endeavors.


In an attempt to discover the ingredients required in making a successful team, Google uncovered that the cultural norms of the group matter more than the individual intelligence of its members. Creating an environment founded in empathy, which allows each member the freedom to take risks and expose their insecurities without fear of negative consequences, improved the success of teams more than any other individual or group characteristic. In other words, they found that allowing individuals the space to be vulnerable actually improved the output of the group. To make a perfect team, it seems, requires accepting the “usefulness of imperfection.” With this in mind we can hope to move away from a culture where shame is coupled with experimental failures.


It is obvious that academics is due for some much needed structural changes – from shifting away from our reliance on impact factors and other indices to judge the quality of science and scientists, to forging a deeper connection with the public and improving funding, to increasing (and respecting!) alternate pathways for successful scientists. I wholeheartedly believe that these structural changes won’t come unless we start adjusting our culture now. We must widen our definition of success and move away from a fact-based version of science to that of inquiry and ignorance. But most importantly, we must allow ourselves and our science to be vulnerable, make space for failure, and in doing so, breathe life back into the scientific process, which has been eclipsed by a results-driven culture. As Brown advises in Daring Greatly, our approach to research ought not be guided by a fear of the possibility of failure but rather by asking ourselves the question: “What’s worth doing even if I fail?”


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