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Day 20: Academia

Well my friends, I made it through the 80 or so miles of California’s Lost Coast, a stretch rugged enough that it has defied road builders for over a century.  Highway 1, my constant companion for two solid weeks to the south, finally cut inland down by Westport, and I wasn’t sad to see it go.  Since ditching the highway shoulder, I forded dozens of rivers, topped big ridges, and got trapped by tides behind sandstone outcrops jutting into the sea.  I watched sunsets sparkle off the ocean between tall black sea stacks, alive with the endless barking of California sea lions.  Although I passed by many fellow hikers and a few private homes, and although this is nowhere near as remote as most parts of Southeast Alaska, it warms my heart that there is a coastline this wild in our nation’s most populous state.  A mix of National and State protection (the Kings Range National Conservation Area to the North and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park to the South), it took a lot of heroic individuals working doggedly over the years to save this beautiful area from development, and that should not evoke snobbish comparisons to my even wilder home — but rather my respect and gratitude!

Along the way, I passed a couple of young ladies in rubber boots working in the rocky intertidal zone.  Approaching, I watched them take some water samples in glass vials and place them into a cooler.  Fellow scientists!  I hurried forward over the slippery rocks to learn more.  The graduate student Carly explained their project to me, while the shy undergraduate assistant, Symphony, smiled sheepishly.  Turns out they were out studying the effects of ocean acidification on the porcelain crab (Carly turned over a rock and they scurried in all directions — “Now don’t pinch me,” she admonished as she picked one up by its hindquarters).  They were taking some specimens back to the lab and exposing them to different pH levels in seawater, simulating today’s ocean and that in year 2100, when we expect things to be about 0.3 pH units more acidic.  (If that doesn’t sound like a lot, keep in mind that pH is a logarithmic scale, such that 0.3 pH units is, effectively, more than a doubling of acidity.)

Delicious salmonberries along the Lost Coast trail.

Delicious salmonberries along the Lost Coast trail.

Chatting with Carly and Symphony about their project, I realized how much I already missed the scientific process, only a month out from finishing my PhD.  For the curious mind, there is so much intrigue in the natural world — mystery that tends only to increase with knowledge and experience.  It is very true that the deeper we dive into a particular system — say, the California’s rocky intertidal — the more we find we don’t know; every answer arrives in the company of a dozen new questions.  Will the porcelain crabs be affected by OA at every life-stage, or will their young larvae be most susceptible?  What about upwelling events which bring deep, low-pH waters to the surface — how will these interact with the long-term acidification trend?  If their numbers decline, how will this affect the food web surrounding the porcelain — its prey, competitors, symbionts, and predators?

With so much intrigue, I never intend to leave the scientific endeavor, and I think Inian Islands Institute will be a great place to explore such questions of ecology and long-term change.  Yet I suppose that my literal walk away from Stanford is also a symbolic walk away from the academic world of science.  The most straightforward path for me after my PhD would have been to get a post-doctoral academic position for a year or two, then go on and become a professor.  Any why not?  It’s a job that sounds pretty damn good at a cocktail party, like a doctor or lawyer — and I must admit that having my own little research group and teaching classes sounds pretty delightful too.  But my hesitancy about entering academia, the reason that I’m pursuing a different path and alternative kind of education at III, is that I have some lingering questions about the structure of academia, that I worry may affect its power to create real positive change in this world.

Fellow Stanford scientists Hari, Ronan, and Fran joined me for an awesome stretch of the Lost Coast.  Don't be offended by this post, my wonderful scientist friends!  I love science, I just question certain things about academia...

Fellow Stanford scientists Hari, Ronan, and Fran joined me for an awesome stretch of the Lost Coast. Don’t be offended by this post, my wonderful scientist friends! I love science, I just question certain aspects of academia sometimes…

Scientists often think of their work as “intrinsically good,” and much of the public would agree.  After all, science is associated in our minds with “enhancing knowledge” and “progress” for the betterment of mankind.  This is the ideal situation: scientists working for the public good.  It was summed up nicely by Jane Lubchenco, Professor at Oregon State University, in what she calls the “social contract“: because we scientists receive public funding — tax-payer dollars in the form of grants from government agencies like the National Science Foundation — we therefore have an obligation to make our science relevant to solving the problems of human societies and the environment they exist in.  It’s a beautiful bargain, in theory.  Yet unfortunately, in actual practice, the academic process often plays out somewhat differently.

As Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park (one of my favorite books — highly recommended!), we scientists aren’t actually driven by abstractions like “seeking truth” or the “betterment of mankind.”  Like almost everyone in today’s Western careerism, we are driven by personal accomplishment.  We all want the next big, high-impact Nature or Science paper, and I was just as guilty as anyone.  And this emphasis on personal achievement is accepted — nay, institutionalized — within the university system.  Professorships are very competitive, and with that territory comes a stressful, intense race for tenure (the achievement that says “you’ve made it” as a scientist).  In the Darwinian struggle for tenure, the University rewards two things: 1) getting grants, because these bring in the overhead dollars, and 2) publishing papers, because these are the clearest metric of scientific prowess.  This incentive system leads to the dangerous “publish or perish” mindset that utterly pervades academia today.  I can remember coming into Stanford, I was told there are only 3 things you need to do to be successful in this field: “publish, publish, publish”.  In this hyper-competitive, publish-or-perish system, the social contract, and all emphasis on making your science relevant to the problems of mankind and Earth’s ecosystems, is in danger of going out the window.  In fact, it can even lead to the strange perversion of scientists hoping for bigger problems — more ice melted, more rainforest chopped, more pollutants in the atmosphere — because it means they can write a more shocking, higher-impact paper about it.  When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in 2010, scientists descended on New Orleans like the paparazzi, hoping to be the first to publish the destruction from the leaking oil.

Moreover, in many ways, we scientists are actively discouraged from engaging directly with the problems of this world.  We are taught that when we publish our science, we can wipe our hands clean and call our job done — time to move on to the next grant, the next paper.  Let someone else decide what to do with the information we provide.  This is the classic “Ivory Tower” mentality: scientists operate in the realm of deep truths about the Universe.  To descend into the common squabble and toxic politics about the world’s problems would taint our scientific truth.  After all, solving problems means casting value judgements, which would interfere with our treasured “scientific objectivity.”

Some mighty big black bear tracks along the lost coast.

Some mighty big black bear tracks along the lost coast.

But true scientific objectivity may never have existed in the first place.  We scientists are people, and as such we wheel around a heaping cart full of mental baggage — biases, preconceptions, stigmas, vices, hopes, friendships, antagonisms, values — into everything that we do.  The mental baggage wonderfully colors our lives and yes, even our science.  More and more, behavioral psychology tells us that as much as we may try, we don’t look objectively at new information — instead, we make split-second, emotional, gut decisions about how we feel about a specific problem, and from then on, we tend to seek information that confirms our thinking, and disregard information to the contrary.  This is the well-known “confirmation bias,” one of many cognitive biases that at work in the human mind, even in our science labs.

Biases notwithstanding, objectivity in the scientific endeavor remains a laudable goal, an essential element of the scientific method that has contributed so much understanding about our natural world for at least 4 centuries.  But we must be very careful to distinguish between objectivity and neutrality.  When we start believing we have to be neutral, to set aside our values, in order to be objective scientific observers — and when neutrality then becomes an excuse for inaction in the face of clear problems — then I believe we scientists are shirking our highest duties.

I want to make a hearty plea that we, as scientists, recognize and embrace our humanity, and let it guide us to use our positions and our expertise to help solve the problems facing this world.  We have a social obligation to do this (because of the source of our funding), and I would contend that we have a moral obligation as well, because we generally understand the environmental and social problems we study better than almost anyone — and are therefore in a uniquely powerful position to help come up with creative solutions.  The hour is too late, the problems of and by humanity too advanced to put up our hands and say, “Hey, don’t look at me!  I just crunch the numbers!”  Let us not pretend to deny in our scientific philosophy that which we know in our hearts to be true: that we should not simply document the collapse, but work to prevent it.

So what can be done?  Many exemplary scientists enter the fray of problem solving, outreach, and advocacy through the current academic system, despite their lack of time and (in some cases) the active discouragement of their universities and peers.  But it seems to me that ultimately, change must come within academia itself, to demonstrate that the academy truly values solving real-world challenges.  It seems to me that what is needed is a change to the incentive systems of academia.  Right now, scientists are incentivized to get grants and publish on the road to tenure, and are dis-incentivized to solve problems, because it takes time away from their grants and papers, and carries no tangible benefits to their career.  But what if universities began reforming their tenure requirements, adding real-world problem solving to the mix, while somewhat de-emphasizing grants and papers?  The tenure committee would review not only the candidate’s publication record and money brought in, but their acres of wetland protected, fisheries improved, or progress in combating local poverty or childhood obesity.  It would be a subjective review, but crucially, it would create an institutional culture that says, “OK, at this university, we care about solving real-world challenges” — a culture that would slowly permeate into the tenured research, the classrooms, and the students.

Looking out from a cave at the Lost Coast shoreline just north of the Mattole River (a harrowing one to cross!).

Looking out from a cave at the Lost Coast shoreline just north of the Mattole River (a harrowing one to cross!).

In my field of study, which involves climate science, many professors would balk — “How on Earth can I make tangible progress on an issue as massive as climate change, involving billions of players, hundreds of nations, and the entire global economy?”  Rubbish.  There is plenty that can be done within an individual’s sphere of influence, which is exactly the culture and mindset that universities should be cultivating!  Be the science adviser for a local climate action group.  Teach a climate science course, and work with the students to find ways of reducing emissions within the local community.  Together, calculate your individual carbon footprints, then run a fundraiser to purchase carbon offsets for the class.  Write letters to state and national legislators in support of climate legislation, and make yourself available to these legislators and their staffers when they have questions about climate science (and they often do).  Involve yourself with efforts to direct your university endowment investments away from fossil fuels — Stanford just made national news by “divesting” from coal, an effort catalyzed by students.  There are endless things that can be done by all these incredibly intelligent, able members of academia — if the incentives are right.

And finally, if problem-solving, outreach, and advocacy truly aren’t for you, if you believe in the sanctity of scientific objectivity, and believe it wrong or uncomfortable to enter the public arena, that’s OK.  In this case, then by all means, TEACH.  Teach often, teach well.  My advisor is a wonderful example of this.  Instill in your students the same passion about the world that led you to science in the first place.  As scientists, let us aspire to a culture of action and change, and place our considerable skills at the service of social and environmental causes greater than our own careers.


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Powerfully said, Zach, both in content and delivery. Walk on, dude. Somebody asked me recently, “Why sleep on the ground?” I said, “To get dirt in your dreams and rocks in your head. To desert your clock, repair your heart. To rediscover what’s real: the earth, your home, not a bad place to be.”

    May 16, 2014
  2. Jess Reeves #

    Love the post Zach! I think some of the best scientists I’ve seen have left academia for many of the reasons you discuss here. Let’s get out there and teach …

    May 16, 2014
  3. Mary Van der Hoven #

    Amen, Zach. You are such an inspiration. Trek on.

    May 19, 2014

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