Yes…it is y(our) fault…

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Academia

So there was a recent post by DrdrA of Blue Lab Coats fame ranting about a recent article in the Huffington Post concerning the pay of faculty members at Texas A&M, and how the article made use of dodgy data in coming to a false conclusions about the financial contribution faculty members make to a University. I do not disagree with Drdr A at all on these points. However, I do disagree on one very important point that she makes and that I’ve seen others make throughout the blogosphere. This point is epitomized by the following excerpt from her post:

“This drivel  gets seen by a national audience, without respect to the (sometimes massive) mistakes made during the process… and viewed by an audience that doesn’t have an understanding of how the modern research university system in this country works.”

The issue here is that the public does not understand what professors really do and how research works at the University level. Now, if you are a professor or postdoc reading this, think way back to the time when you were a first year graduate student. Remember how much there was to learn about the way the academic world, and academic research worked? Did you have much, if any, idea of this from your time as an undergraduate? I know I certainly didn’t grasp this at all. Even as a young post-doc I’m still working to understand how the system works despite being at it for 5+ years.

Now, you need to realize that the large majority of people in the United States, and the rest of the world, even those with a college degree, do NOT HAVE A CLUE when it comes to how things really work in a research university. Why? Is it because they are willfully ignorant? Because they don’t want to know? Not necessarily….it’s the same reason why you didn’t know when you were a first year graduate student. Because nobody tells them. And who is in the position to educate these college graduates? YOU, the professors, are!

So, in large part, it is largely the fault of the professors that college educated citizens do not understand how things work in a research university. You have many (but certainly not all!) of these people in your classrooms at one point or another, but there is no discussion in these classrooms about how science actually works. If there is no discussion from the people that actually do the science and work in this environment, then it seems completely unreasonable to expect educated citizens to actually appreciate how the entire enterprise actually works.

The solution? Integrate a bit of how science actually works into the classroom. I know I never had any exposure in a classroom setting as to how science actually works. The funding, the graduate students, the postdocs, the peer review process…all of this is completely and utterly opaque to even the college educated public. If we want people to appreciate all that academics do, then it is our charge to educate them when given the opportunity. Otherwise it appears quite unreasonable to expect Joe Q. Public to appreciate how academic research works, even at a very superficial level.

This lack of an understanding about how academic science work is, in many ways, y(our) fault!

  1. Bashir says:

    I generally agree. I usually try to explain a few things. First that all academic jobs are some combination of research, teaching and service. That big universities are typically research focused. It can be hard to convey how time consuming research is.

  2. heteromeles says:


    (Checking stats)

    Oh yeah, most grad students don’t make it to academic jobs.

    Oh yeah, because of the baby boomers and the echo boom, you need a surplus of grad students around to teach the labs in the big universities, because they can’t afford to hire professors or post docs to teach them.

    Ditto the research itself, in many fields. Too many professors spend little time getting their hands wet.

    Academia in general has a surplus of talent, and in fact, it only functions because of this surplus of talent. It’s not that different from the entertainment industry. A movie lives or dies by its stars, but it needs thousands of supporting actors, extras and little people to actually get stuff done.

    As with Hollywood, academia runs on a fantasy, which is that science is wonderful and you can, with sufficient pluck and talent, find a Good Job there. They don’t mention that you’ll probably be in your mid-forties by the time you get that job, and you’ll be making less than your brother over in accounting, and most of what you’ll be doing is hunting grants, advising, and teaching.

    Yes, this is the cynical view, but I’m honestly not sure what I would teach undergrads, that would let this whole fantastic edifice of academic science keep working.

    Pulling the focus away from academic Real Science, I’d like to teach them enough that they can do science on their own. There’s a huge amount of science that needs to be performed every year, from checking water samples for contaminants to sensitive species counts, to figuring out how that whole sustainability thing can work on a block by block level. Much of it is performed by volunteers, laid off scientists, hobbyists, and the interested public. Amateurs, in other words.

    Since real scientists spend their time writing grants, maybe its better to empower the amateurs to collect data properly, and not worry about teaching them about academic science?

  3. Worm Pilot says:

    I agree both with the original post and also the cynicism of heteromeles. When I ask friends and families if they know any other scientists, they usually say no. We stick to our own little circles and surround ourselves with other academics. But that’s also who we generally interact with except for the few people who do outreach. And they seem few and far between among the academics I know. Maybe if the system as a whole wasn’t so flawed, professors would find it an important part of their job to do public outreach instead of just having to focus on research all the time.

  4. DrugMonkey says:

    Spot on that this should be a matter of general education. The philosophers of science have at least one thing right- understanding how scientific knowledge is built is important to out ability to evaluate and use that information for public decision making.

  5. DrugMonkey says:

    “our” ability…

  6. Part of the job of professors is to teach academic subjects to undergraduates. How science functions as a profession is something scientists could make clearer to those outside the profession – not just students. Honestly I believe this is the job of professional science communicators, who work closely with scientists, and not the sole responsibility of professors. This would be best achieved as a joint effort aimed at enlightening non-scientists how science functions as an institution. Certainly it should not be a compulsory part of the science curriculum and such knowledge should not be exclusive to college graduates.

  7. APS says:

    I explicitly explain to undergrads that their professors do research whenever I get a chance. I’ve been to some “lunch with the professor” programs – they’re a great opportunity to explain to undergrads what research life is like. Some young ones don’t even know their profs do research!

    Not that this is strange. I certainly had not much on my mind other than typical college student things like, rock’n roll, when I was an undergrad! I was in a different discipline, different continent, different point in life. That’s normal.

    They need to be explicitly told. In class, I invite guest lecturers and highlight that they are lucky to learn the material from people who are right now doing the top research on this! I mean maybe it sounds dramatic, but it’s true. But the kids don’t know, so you gotta point it out.

    I think it’s real important to mentor undergrads in research. In the lab, I include undergrads in everything. They start helping out with a project and then can develop their own projects. Some have risen to the responsibility beautifully. They even write mini-grants applying for undergrad funding. It’s very cute. They totally are part of the process in the lab.

  8. funkdoctorx says:

    @ Bashir – I hear you, I always end up doing a lot of explaining, particularly to friends and family members, about research and whatnot. I haven’t had the ear of too many undergrads yet.

    @ heteromeles – interesting idea about training amateurs to do science, and I think that would work in some fields more so than others. Nonetheless, it might be a stretch to expect amateurs to publish in peer review journals, so another outlet would be required for them. Finally, while I certainly appreciate your cynicism, I don’t know that I would say real scientists just write grants (they certainly appear to do a lot of it!), but they also get to come up with new ideas to put in the grants, and as far as I can see, that’s really where the science is at. The stuff that’s done in the lab is more the technical aspect that can mostly be done by a technician. It’s the ideas that count (although perhaps I’m a bit of a starry eyed youngin’ still)…I think the important thing is that the public understands how science is done and what professors and scientists do. If their only interaction with professors is in the classroom as a teacher of some text, then of course they are going to think that all professors do is teach.

    @ Worm Pilot – Totally agree with you. There definitely needs to be more outreach. It’s tough though, because getting an interview for a tenure track job will depend a whole helluva lot more on one’s publication record than outreach record. Nonetheless, I think it should be an important part of every scientists career to give back to the community. After all, it’s their tax dollars that support us!

    @ Drug Monkey – Completely agree with you. The philosophers of science do have it right. If we want an informed and intelligent society, that society needs to understand the strengths, and limitations, of scientific inquiry.

    @ Dr. Girlfriend – You make a good point. Professors already appear to be overburdened. However, at the end of the day, it is in their best interest that those that provide their support (the public, politicians) understand what it is they do. In fact, I think out of just about everyone, it is likely most important to them. So if there is going to be a push for increased public understanding of science, it has to at least start from those that consider it most important.

    @APS – That sounds like a great way to get undergrads some exposure to how science is done. In my grad lab we had a lot of undergrads come through and get exposure to science. My concern is, however, that it’s too small a subset of folks to make much of an impact. Perhaps the real question would be then: how do we expose non-scientifically inclined undergrads to how science is done? Perhaps as part of their general education requirements? I know a lot of schools require all students to take some sort of elementary science class, and I would hazard a guess that most of those classes don’t have much discussion concerning how science is actually done.

    • neuromusic says:

      I mentioned this in my comment on DM’s blog, but I think that the focus of professors on “mentoring” students and training them for research careers is very different from the need for ALL undergrads to know How Research Works (who does it, where does the money come from, who decides what gets done).

      “Mentoring” is all well and good for the Undergrad Golden Boy, but most undergrads aren’t particularly excited about science and are only sitting through BIO101 because they have to. And “Mentoring” is subject to all of the valid criticisms of @heteromeles.

      It’s not just that this Golden Boy group (undergrads helping out or working in labs) is too small… it’s preaching to the choir. The Undergrad Golden Boy is already an advocate of science and will probably vote in support of science-friendly policy.

      Where we are shooting ourselves in the foot is ignoring the undergrads who don’t really care all that much about science. Those are the ones we need to justify the value of our work to and educate on how the System works, so that they can be informed journalists, policy makers, and (most importantly) voters.

      • funkdoctorx says:

        I completely agree. I think the fact that many graduate students, postdocs and professors didn’t understand how science works when we started is particularly telling. If those people that are already inclined to go into science don’t understand how it works, one can only imagine what everyone else is thinking about how science is actually done.

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