decline and fall of the science empire?

In a previous life I was a chemist. Well, biochemist or protein engineer is probably a better description, but my formal training was in the belly of the academic science beast. I have fond memories of grad school at Caltech, and my initial goals of getting a Ph.D. to teach at a liberal arts college were migrated to the possibility of doing “big science” at a big place because going science at Caltech was so fun and relatively easy (late 80’s for time reference). At some point early in my postdoc I realized that teaching was where my heart was and I moved back towards my original plan. Then the internet hit and I changed careers but that’s another story.

Even back in the “good old days” of doing science, there were signs of toxicity. The synthetic organic groups tended to be workaholics (priding themselves on spending 80 hours a week in the lab), everyone was competing for publications and funding, and as time wore on the vibe changed. I recall a conversation with the head admin for the department. Caltech had just claimed another Nobel prize in chemistry and people were thrilled. But Chris made an interesting comment to me over drinks at the Ath. She noted that the new incoming students were different from our cohort – more focused and mono maniacal. One thing she always appreciated was the grad student population tending to have diverse interests and activities. Lots of camping, sports, art/music, etc. But the newer crop of students were all-science, all the time. She commented that we were the end of an era.

Fast forward to a Nature article about the toxicity in big science. Anxiety, depression, burn-out. Sure, there was instances of that back in my day but it wasn’t rampant and there were options at least some of the time (eg in grad school I switched to a more chill group that was a better psychological fit). Since leaving big science in 2000, I still kept some connections and the occasional collaboration. And the changes over time were evident. Combine the issues discussed in the Nature article with other challenges around public trust of science (eg the reproducibility problems), global competition for talent and scientific/engineering progress, and a generally crazy pace of change in our increasingly digital world, and you have a recipe for disaster.

What to do? Big problems, non-obvious paths other than at least do something where you can. For instance have conversations about work-life balance and try to actualize that. Rethink promotions and tenure factors (and the whole academic publishing model in general). And science will need to have a reckoning with AI, just like every other area of society.

At the end of the day, scientists are humans, with all the pluses and minuses associated with humanity. As emerging tech forces us to reexamine what it means to be human and what exactly are human endeavors, this is perhaps an opportunity to try and make the practice of science more humane. Or one can hope…

Share your thoughts