I’ll be frank: I’m fighting a battle with depression today. Even though I truly love what I do, the business and politics of academic life take their inevitable tolls. Given the humanness of this type of scholastic system, rife with traditional hierarchies, feuds, backstabbings, and other characteristically human failings, it’s a constant miracle that any scientific work gets done at all.
As a young scientist, I’m slowly awakening to a rude shock of reality that, though we’re raised with certain ideals, they are often missing in the university setting. Some days, the darkest days, it seems true that universities care more about money than their staff or their students; that successful sports coaches are paid exorbitant salaries, meanwhile researchers are threatened with job loss should they not hold enough grants. With all these threats, it makes one wonder how much of the money for overhead goes, not back into the research its meant to support, but instead lines other unrelated pocketbooks. And then there are the many ways the people within these systems actively undermine one another, the way the entirety of research education breeds a detrimental competitiveness that surely hinders progress more than it helps. For many students, getting through a PhD program can be hell– not just because of the work but because of the people. Why is that? It makes no sense that a system whose proclaimed goal to educate spends so much time tearing down its next generation before its ever begun. It’s downright asinine and cruel.
There was a time in history when natural philosophers were so passionate about their craft they paid with life and freedom. Science was an art that was less sullied by the politics of human systems but was discovery for its own sake. It was the need to understand the world around us, even if the price paid was excommunication, imprisonment, or worse. And even earlier than that, the Ancient Greeks had turned philosophizing into something almost sacred. It was the art of science. The creativity that sparks imagination. The passion that drives relentless work. The stubbornness that sets a scientist on his path until he achieves what no other person thought he could. That which makes us most human. The best kind of human.
No, we’re not the English nobleman who has nothing better to do with his time and money than to go in search of dinosaur bones or dig up Egyptian tombs. But surely science hasn’t become such a “science” that we’re held to the confines of our protocols and our Big Data. Are we so comfortably set in our safe science and soft hypotheses that we rarely doubt their veracity? Is the gradual revelation of knowledge now just a boring inevitability?
Or is there still passion lurking in the wings of academia, overshadowed by hierarchical ladders and hallowed marble halls? Where is that mad scientist quietly brewing in each of us, layman and academic alike? What will we do to revive the spirit of the Ancient Greeks, the Renaissance masters, in our truth-seeking of today? Because without that creative spark– an essence which breathes life into these pursuits– science is a lifeless, festering, business-like thing. Already, these very human systems promote stagnation. Consider how much we are held back by issues of money, propriety, competition, publication, and institution. Consider how much more we could be doing otherwise if it weren’t for the boxes we’ve placed around ourselves and future generations.
This post is a call for the revival of the art of science. It’s a call to those of you out there who feel like I do that, though much is good in the evolution of natural philosophy and modern science, today’s science lacks a passionate and romantic creativity that would otherwise drive us faster towards paradigms which have been very long in waiting. I ask for a new age of science, one in which publications are not limited by paper count. And where freedom of thought and discovery are not pawns to the bottom dollar. In this we can each make our own small contributions, simply by changing our perspectives and stepping out of the box we’ve built for ourselves. Tell me, how will you change yours?
I agree, I want to be a herpetologist when I grow up, but one big thing is I just love reptiles and amphibians, and I want to see them in the wild. I want to study their intricate movements, the way they catch their prey, etc. But this modern world is all about money and paper, and doesn’t focus so much on the beauty in science, art, and music. So I’m worried I won’t have a chance to go where I want to go to study them. I want to study reptiles and amphibians in the Amazon Rainforest, or somewhere in Australia. I don’t mind being inside a building for part of the time I’m studying them, but I feel like science holds so much more beauty when it is studied outside of a building. It holds so much more potential. They’re is so much more paper work now, it loses its artfulness, and becomes simply at test to see what more we can learn. Is this comment to long, I’m sorry if it is, I also seem to do this in school to, writing three paragraphs to describe something instead of a few sentences as the teacher had asked.
I can’t profess to have any practical experience in the field of herpetology. Although I would be surprised if you weren’t able to spend a substantial percentage of your time studying out in the field. Now, that’s likely contingent on getting grants to do so, which you’ll have to write (some of that paperwork you were talking about). On the flip side, if you enjoy communicating what you’ve learned, then you may really enjoy writing papers for publication. I won’t promise that that game isn’t laden with politics and business too, but there’s little like the joy of getting a manuscript accepted for publication. I love the feel of having created something which can then be shared.
I’d say if you know what you love to do, then do it. Yes, there may be a lot of road blocks (and people placing them) in front of you, but keep pushing through. And when you get to the good stuff, relish it. I hate the business and politics of science, but I’m completely addicted to the sensation of discovery. And if you love what you do, share that passion with others, because it can be contagious and we need a lot more of that joy of discovery in the world today. Best of luck! 🙂