Most people have a distorted view about what scientists working at universities really are like. There certainly is some truth in the common feeling that scientists researching in the ivory tower have it easy while living a safe and comfortable life without ever working up a sweat. In the modern era many university scientists worry more about their research grant(s) and their lab space assignment than they do about how to get a difficult experiment to finally work, or whether alternative explanations for their recent results make more sense than a traditional interpretation.
There are a few exceptions to such generalizations, and some university science faculty do maintain their individuality and personal standards. These persons frequently are known as troublemakers, weirdos, hard boiled eggs, creative geniuses, misfits, or ambitious workaholics. Some of the same characteristics desired for successful research scientists also are found prominently in these distinctive individuals; such features include curiosity, creativity, and inventiveness, as I have explained earlier (see: “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ). In addition, these same scientists often are characterized by such features as idealism, pig-headedness, not fearing to speak the truth, and, dedication to being a scientist.
This report relates a few true stories about actual university scientists I have known. All have the personal courage to fight the system, and are unconventional. Their identity must remain a secret in order to protect the guilty!
University scientist X attacks the glorified institution of tenure!
Scientist X is a very successful cell biologist who is hard-working, creative, well-liked, and highly individualistic. He works at a very large state university, and has had his research grants renewed throughout his career. He was overwhelmingly qualified to be promoted and tenured. However, because he is independently wealthy, he decided to forego all the time and scrutiny involved with this academic ritual. All other faculty are totally enthusiastic to accept whatever is necessary to get tenured. His Chair, the Dean, and the senior professors in his department all tried to persuade him to accept becoming tenured, but he just would not give in.
Academic tenure traditionally gives a faculty member the right to speak their opinion without fear of being fired by the employer. How in the world can any university faculty not want to become tenured? Prof. X readily explained his most unusal decision with something like the following (paraphrased): “I do not have time for tenure. I do not need tenure, since I can easily get a new faculty position elsewhere if I am fired here. I always say what is on my mind, so tenure means nothing to me. I am doing a good job here, so why do I have to get it?” No-one could remember such statements ever being offered before! His fellow faculty frequently commented about Prof. X (paraphrased): “What is wrong with him? He is just unbelievable! Tenure is so important and utterly necessary! Poor Prof. X must be mad! No professor can survive without tenure!”
For university faculty members, the decision about tenure is required, meaning that faculty candidates either must be retained with the promotion or else they are discharged from employement (i.e., “up, or out”). After much further disputation, Prof. X still would not give in! He reportedly told his superiors that he would be pleased to just continue doing his usual very good work without having any tenured status, but that was impossible according to the University bylaws! Finally, a special arrangement was worked out when his employer realized that they strongly wanted him to continue working at this university; Prof. X became tenured without being evaluated further or having to sign any papers.
This real story is amazingly unusual! Nobody else ever rejects the chance to be promoted to the tenured rank, or actually offers reasons for that rejection. Prof. X must be admired for having the guts to be outspoken and self-directed. He stuck to his personal beliefs and challenged a long-standing university tradition. In retrospect today, it is totally clear that becoming tenured made no difference at all to the continued good success of Prof. X as a professional research scientist.
University scientist Y pays for some of his own research expenses!
Scientist Y is unusual because he, unlike all other university faculty, is willing to spend his own personal money for some of his business expenses (i.e., payment for purchases of some small research supplies and for transportation to national or international science meetings). Other science faculty at his urban university never ever do that; they could not understand Prof. Y and condemned his judgment about using his own funds. They would simply not go to any science meeting unless their travel and hotel expenses were paid for by external funds. Some of the other faculty thought that Prof. Y definitely must be some kind of weirdo!
When asked to explain his unusual willingness to spend his own personal money for travel expenses to participate in a science meeting, he said that he viewed this as an investment in himself as a professional research scientist. He actually was buying additional knowledge (i.e., the talks and posters he witnessed), making new contacts, asking questions about research to scientists he met, and interacting with some attendees as a potential collaborator. Putting these same funds into investments indeed might get him more money, but that did not really help his science career as much as what he gained by being at the meetings.
This unusual use of personal money undoubtedly was an expression of Prof. Y’s very strong commitment to science. Many famous scientists show this same commitment as a notable feature of their professional success. Such personal commitment unfortunately is becoming infrequent in the modern age.
University scientist Z calls into question whether a research grant is necessary for faculty scientists to continue researching and publishing!
Professor Z lost his research grant 1 year ago, and is trying either to get it back or to acquire a new award. Traditionally, for all faculty at his university, losing their external grant support means that they will soon have to relinquish their laboratory space assignment unless they can soon acquire new research funding. Although composing several applications takes up almost all of his time, Prof. Z continues to work actively in his research lab and has published several new research reports. He openly maintains that: (1) he had purchased enough research supplies to last for another few years, (2) he and one graduate student continue their research work, so no additional lab personnel are needed, (3) his output of new peer-reviewed research reports in good journals continues just as it did before he lost his grant, and, (4) he wants to continue his lab research.
Other faculty now complain to the Chair that they need more lab space for their grant-supported projects, and want Prof. Z’s space assignment to be re-assigned to them. It is totally unheard of that any former grantee can continue to do research and to issue new publications without having a research grant award. His Chair is very uneasy with this situation, particularly because Prof. Z is still actively researching. Prof. Z’s intention clearly calls into question whether researching can be done without having a grant.
This dilemma arises because all positions are seen only as being black and white, rather than as different shades of gray. Even Prof. Z admits that he did even more when he was funded than at present. Nevertheless, it is completely false to state that Prof. Z presently is not producing good research, because he obviously still is doing so. As more and more university faculty members lose their external research grant awards, this entire situation now will arise more frequently; with the vicious cut-throat hyper-competition for research grants now in effect (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ), the former grantees almost always rapidly lose their argument and become very bitter. The usual response to this situation indicates that modern universities are after profits from research grants more than seeking additional contributions of significant new knowledge and understanding; in other words, the inflow of money is more valuable to them than the production of new knowledge.
These stories illustrate that some individual scientists at universities do have much personal integrity and a strong commitment to their work. But, it certainly takes guts to be different! Scientists in academia usually must restrain their individualism in order to function and succeed in their job situation. The personal courage and strong determination of the individual scientists described above should be applauded by all the other faculty; instead, those individuals usually are ridiculed. It never is easy to stand up and do what one believes to be right when many others have the opposite opinion. These real stories show that some academic traditions and rules are made to be broken. The story about Prof. X particularly shows that modern universities must be forced to do the right thing!
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