The tradeoff between productivity and risk-taking

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For a lot of academic scientists, the currency of research is productivity.

Pre-tenure faculty need to build a list of solid pubs for themselves. Post-tenure faculty need to build a solid list of pubs to support professional outcomes for lab members. Grad students needs pubs to land a postdoc, and postdocs need a bunch of pubs to get a job. As is said, publish or perish.

The evolutionary arms race in the academic job market has resulted in a selection for productivity. (How often do search committees read the papers of applicants, or are they just counting and measuring them?)

I realize that, Back In The Day, things were different. But still, when I first read these tweets and the associated post by Jeremy Fox, it sorta blew my mind:

For most of you who aren’t ecologists, Joe Connell’s research is foundational and found in probably every introductory ecology textbook. As we tell the story now, his experiments were huge in creating a new understanding of how ecological competition works. And, apparently, he landed a faculty position without any kind of publication, and his first pub came just as he was coming up for tenure!

Standards were obviously different. It wasn’t until the 1970s that universities started advertising faculty positions! It literally was an old boys’ network, when you called up friends and asked them if they had students who wanted to apply for a job.

I wonder what it would have been like to do research in that environment. Good gosh, I’m not yearning for the good ol’ days when it when your identity and connections mattered even more than they do now. But can you imagine what it would be like to be in an academic environment where you were not expected to run a factory? When journal impact factors and h-scores were uncalculated, and the Science Citation Index was a thick book that was rarely consulted? Of course, people still cared about productivity and journal prestige and grant dollars brought in, but expectations were extraordinarily different.

Right now, scientists in many research environments cannot afford to make a big attempt that won’t result in a substantial paper. They can’t afford to squander effort on a high-risk side project that is unlikely to bear fruit. Or, at least, people feel this way. Because the productivity bar that you need to clear is so high, failure might mean you can’t clear that bar. While as we talk about the importance of failure for the development of scientific acumen, it doesn’t get high value when it comes time to hiring and promotion.

I’ve been thinking about this tradeoff between the potential for creativity and productivity, as I’ve been scaling back the magnitude of new work. At this writing, I’m working at the field station where I am typically found this time of year. But for the first time that I can recall other than sabbatical, I’m here without responsibilities for students. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to recruit, plan, prepare, and conduct the fieldwork for this field season. I’m not here to initiate or continue a project, to but to write up the many ones that have lingered. And to toy around with one or two new ideas.

I’m in a situation where it’s not necessary to Always Be Closing. I don’t have to keep the pipeline running with papers in press, papers in review, papers in prep, papers in the lab, papers in the field, grants funded, grants in review, grants in prep. If I didn’t get another paper out for years, that wouldn’t be a disaster to anybody who I work for or work with. (I would be unhappy about it, to be sure.) Maintaining that funding and grant pipeline occupies a helluva lotta neurons.

I’ve been saying no to a lot of things, as I’m working to get my backlog of work taken care of. This has left me in the position where I feel free to explore new things, not sure about the actual prospects for success, because they’re interesting and might have a big long-term impact. The high-risk, high-reward kind of work. The kind of work that people are afraid to undertake at the cost of productivity.

Instead of making sure the research pipeline is running at all stages, I’m starting to do a few things that may or may not pan out. One will take me a couple days, the other will take me a few weeks. I can do this because, well, my failure to bring in a grant won’t mean that anybody is losing a job. I can do this because I’m not worried about having a gap in my CV with fewer or no papers. It’s amazing what this kind of liberty does for creativity, where I don’t need to worry about how likely something will work!

While we all swim in the water of the research environment that expects extraordinary levels of productivity, for a lot of us, that’s not necessarily what happens at work. In universities like mine, it’s okay to take a risk that might drop productivity. On my campus, nobody really gives a damn about h-scores. That’s liberating.

Because conditions in smaller academic ponds result in lower productivity, folks don’t obsess about it as much. We’re more concerned about what a person does, rather than the sheer mass of product that is the result. So when I said, I wondered what it was like Back In The Day, that’s slightly disingenuous. Because at a lot of teaching-focused institutions, it’s still like that. It’s only when we leave campus that we’re subjected to the community norm of extremely high productivity. That might be one of the great reasons to choose against an R1, because you can take the luxury to take risks in your science, because you’ll be okay if it doesn’t work out.

 

 


[animated gif in header: Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, wearing a suit, and saying “Always be closing”]

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